Fall Festival of Shakespeare marks 30th anniversary, and still, the play's the thing
LENOX — Are you brave enough to take a running leap into the arms of your peers?
Would you dare to sword fight whilst cursing your enemy in couplets?
Could you kiss your classmate with poetic conviction — in front of your family members and hundreds of peers?
Participating in the Fall Festival of Shakespeare is neither for the faint of heart or void of soul. Yet, for the past three decades, thousands of brave high schoolers from throughout Western Massachusetts and Southeastern New York have taken up scripts, stage arms and soundboards to help bring the best of the Bard of Avon's work to life in a single weekend of intimate and invigorating performances and reverence.
The Fall Festival of Shakespeare will celebrate its 30th anniversary this weekend by bringing hundreds of teenagers from 10 high schools to the Tina Packer Playhouse at Shakespeare & Company. Over the past nine weeks, they have been rehearsing under the guidance of theater professionals — 22 directors, 50 technicians and designers — studying the Shakespearean language, stage combat, dance and movement, technical theater, production and marketing techniques.
"It's so different than any other acting I've done," said Berkshire Waldorf High School senior Luke Lamond, who plays Romeo in his school's production of "Romeo and Juliet."
"It's cliche to say, but it's really kind of magical, and a really, really good time."
After getting up about 5:30 a.m. and enduring a day of academics and adolescence, Lamond wandered into the Stockbridge school's large classroom. Golden light from the setting sun filtered through the windows, casting a natural spotlight on the performers.
The room soon filled with the swooshing and metallic clanking of swords as classmates Toby Keenan, a Capulet, choreographed a feud with Rafael Horn, a Montague. Their teeth clenched and eyes squinted with scorn as their shadows danced furiously across the carpet.
The electricity in the air softened when Lamond and his Juliet, portrayed by Pia Whyte, took the floor. Lamond took a tin of Altoids from his pocket to share, and they prepared to run through various romantic scenes, from the infamous balcony to their fateful exchanging of vows. Directors Annie Considine and Ellie Bartz gave them directions in Flirting: 101, as the two rehearsed Act 1, Scene 5.
Romeo says: "If I profane with my unworthiest hand / This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this: / My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand / To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss."
Juliet replies: "Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much, / Which mannerly devotion shows in this; / For saints have hands that / pilgrims' hands do touch, / And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss."
"Can you have far too much fun in saying that?" Bartz asked.
Lamond and Whyte gave it a go, smiling more, with raised eyebrows and gently-moving, touching palms.
Considine then asked: "Can we find the giggles in it?"
After all, they're star-crossed teenagers, madly in love.
So, Lamond and Whyte continued to push themselves to bring out the light in this tragic story.
"The story of Romeo and Juliet is something everyone knows," Whyte said. "It's hard to explain, but, as we're rehearsing, I can put what I want into it and what I feel into it and it doesn't matter what other people think or have seen before."
'Eager to work'
Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington is staging its own production of "Romeo and Juliet" for this weekend's Fall Festival, but each group will add its own signature to the popular production.
At Monument, for example, Dana Harrison and Connie Russo are directing groups of dual cast characters, so the audience will see various students transition into the same role throughout the show.
"They are so willing, so eager to work," Harrison said.
But before each rehearsal begins, the directors for each production take the time to run "check-ins" with their cast and crew members. At Monument, where there are several dozen students involved, they sit in a circle and each person gets a chance to chime in.
On one recent evening, the answers ranged from "I had the best day ever" to "I had a total utter trash bin fire of a day. I don't want to be here."
Kevin Coleman, education director of Shakespeare & Company, said this process carries several benefits.
"We've done check-ins since the beginning. It's a transition from being in the classroom and inert," he said. "This gets you on your feet and feeling your body. In Shakespeare, you fight and dance. You're falling in love and killing people — figuratively, of course. You need to have that physical and emotional awareness."
Check-ins, he said, also ensure "that each person has a chance to speak and speak about what's going on with them. ... As each kid hears the other kid speaking — though they are wildly different, so different from each other — you discover that, 'Hey, that kid's the same as I am.' It creates a really humane environment."
With that sense of trust and safety and connection, Coleman said, the real learning and growing can begin.
"In that environment you can take greater risks," he said. "The kids cheer for one another like they might cheer for the other team. This is a celebration, not a competition."
It's that momentum, that authentic bond, that has created a Fall Festival of Shakespeare community. The program's legacy has lifted the bar for performance, launched careers and nationally replicated programs, and created lasting memories not just for participants, but for their families and audiences alike.
Maria Rundle, executive director for the Flying Cloud Institute in Great Barrington, regularly leads workshops for students and educators on how to creatively integrate science, technology, engineering and mathematics into everyday learning and growth. She also is an alumna of the Fall Festival of Shakespeare, having performed with her peers at Monument Mountain Regional High School in the early and mid-1990s, in shows ranging from comedy "Love's Labour's Lost" to history "The Life and Death of King John."
"The Fall Festival is empowering, liberating, and joyful," she said. "The company members see the cast as true artists and invite youth to explore the language and the relationships of Shakespeare's plays as if for the first time."
In her current work, she trains her staff to follow the same sense of social responsibility in inviting youths to explore and develop their own questions in the STEAM fields.
What sticks with her today from her Fall Festival experience? "The importance of authentic experience in engaging youth," she said. "To really see young people as the powerful, complicated, creative individuals they are."
When Lee native Kevin Bartini looks back over his 20-year career as a standup comedian, he says, "It all goes back to them."
In fact, the New York City-based entertainer wrote a letter about it to Shakespeare & Company, and has since become an advisory board member.
"Since I was six years old I dreamt of being nothing but a stand-up comedian. I joined the drama club in the fall of my freshman year not because of a love of theater but for the express purpose of being sure I was comfortable on stage when I began my career as a stand-up comedian," Bartini wrote.
"My first play was that fall and was a part of The Shakespeare and Company's Fall Festival. If I stood out that year it was in a completely negative manner. I was undisciplined, brash, unfocused, unprofessional, overwhelmed and underprepared. Poor Jon Croy, to this day I can't imagine a more challenging student. I really was awful."
Yet Croy, an actor and director with the troupe, and Bartini persevered.
"Jon Croy was patient and professional and exactly the right man to snap me into shape," he said.
In a phone interview, Bartini told The Eagle, "Being given the text of William Shakespeare when you're a freshman in high school, it's quite daunting. It's quite literally close to learning a different language. But you talk about why are they saying it and why it matters. ... By being able to take a moment to understand, 'Why did they say this?' 'Where are they coming from?' it helps you understand other people and how to interact with them."
Said Coleman: "The Fall Festival of Shakespeare has become a tradition here in the Berkshires. [It has] grown from a simple idea: to have students encounter the plays of Shakespeare as plays; to meet Shakespeare on his own terms. Just that."
In looking ahead, he hopes students and directors and audiences continue to strive to understand the meaning of the work within their own current space and time.
"The Festival is where students rigorously think, deeply feel, wildly imagine and speak — without inhibition — the thoughts and feelings, the joys and heartbreaks of his characters in the presence of witnesses — the audience," he said.
Jenn Smith can be reached at email@example.com and 413-496-6239.
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