Habtamu Coulter as Bottom and Bridie Raustiala as Titania rehearse a scene from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Hayground School on Monday.
By Emily J Weitz
For the past 16 years, a highlight of the educational experience for many students at the Hayground School in Bridgehampton has been the Shakespeare residency. Students ages three to 13 participate in this month-long intensive study, with three visiting artists as guides. After four weeks of study, play and rehearsal, the residency culminates in a performance. This Thursday, Hayground students will perform “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Bay Street Theatre.
Josie Wilson is one of the visiting artists from the Lenox, Massachusetts-based Shakespeare & Company who has been working with students this year.
“All three of [the visiting artists] are actors, directors, and educators,” she says. “We begin the month by playing theatre games to get them having fun. Then we teach them the story of the play, letting them dip their toes in the language of Shakespeare by allowing them a chance to play all the parts. We ask them to choose one character that speaks to them.”
She notes this process of familiarizing themselves with all the parts in the play gives students a real understanding of character and story. Lana Kozar, a Hayground mother whose five-year-old is participating in the program for the third year, believes this is a great approach to teaching the story.
“For a week the kids had to play every role,” says Kozar, “male and female, and to get to know all the characters. When they finally gave out the roles, my daughter was so proud. She has four sentences, but she’ll be there alone onstage. She’s five-and-a-half, and she’ll have her own few minutes. It’s pretty amazing.”
Once they were assigned roles, the students worked on scenes, collaborated together to tackle lines as a group, and learned dances. They also approached the story from different angles.
“They use Shakespeare lines of text as inspiration for visual art both two-dimensional and three-dimensional,” says Wilson, “and parents and students help to build the sets.”
Part of what is so extraordinary about teaching Shakespeare to children as young as three is the task of teaching the language itself. That’s what Arjun Achuthan, a Hayground teacher and parent who’s been working with the Shakespeare residency since its first year at the school, is most struck by.
“For the kids who go to Hayground for a long time,” he says, “Shakespeare becomes normal to them. Shakespearian language isn’t odd. Having fun with Shakespeare plays is a normal part of everyday life.”
This is a stark contrast to how many people come to know Shakespeare, Achuthan says.
“For most of us adults, we had to labor and work hard to understand Shakespeare,” he says. “These kids are going into their high school years with a really comfortable relationship with one of the best writers of all time.”
But how do these artists in residence make Shakespearian language accessible?
“We work with each student individually,” says Wilson, “to help them understand the sometimes difficult language. We first have them look up words on their own, then translate the lines, and make sure that they act out everything they are saying.”
They use a method called “feeding in,” in which the teachers read the lines in complete monotone, and then ask the students to bring it life by acting it out with their full body expression.
“It lets even students just learning to read have access to Shakespeare’s language,” Wilson says.
When students first start studying their individual parts, they begin to understand one plot line. But Wilson says she can see once they start acting out scenes and working together how the students begin to understand the larger picture. And then it’s time for the performance.
“Putting them onstage,” says Kozar, “they take a risk and do something on their own. We as parents are always on top of them, telling them how to do things. But the Shakespeare people are great at teaching them the role and then giving them the freedom to bring their own voice to it.”
Wilson believes that in the performance itself is a great deal of the learning.
“Performance requires a lot of bravery,” says Wilson. “It is also a whole body learning experience. It involves imagination and creativity, emotional intelligence and interpersonal skill. It requires confidence and preparation. We have seen quiet students speak up, and students who might have difficulty in a traditional classroom setting really shine through.”
The Hayground School’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream will take place today, Thursday, January 30 at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor. There is a suggested donation of $10.