Memphis Commercial Appeal - Printer-friendly story

Students stage-struck by Shakespeare

By Lela Garlington

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A boy sat on the edge of his front row center seat during a performance of "Romeo and Juliet" at the Hutchison School's Wiener Theater. After the play, he lingered to talk to the actors.

A girl on the back row was the first on her feet to give the Tennessee Shakespeare Company a standing ovation for its 90-minute school production.

John Hammon, 14, a ninth-grader at Westminster Academy, rarely leaned back in his seat during the play.

"We read it in class, but seeing it on stage you can understand it so much better," he said afterward. "You could see it on their faces and with their body language."

Over the past three weeks, the Germantown-based Tennessee Shakespeare Company has taken "Romeo and Juliet" on the road to 1,680 public, private or home-schooled students throughout the Mid-South. This is the company's second year for touring.

The play is one of Shakespeare's tragedies and centers on two young, star-crossed lovers from prominent but feuding families in Verona.

"We have only one opportunity to be the first. If they get a bad start with Shakespeare, you're having to pry that door open -- either they get it or they don't. They are predisposed not to," the show's director, Stephanie Shine, said.

The set was simple to transport. Except for the unexpected addition of a talent show's sparkly hearts and stars hanging from Hutchison's rafters, four road boxes on rollers pulled dual duty as costume closets and as stylized, castlelike Renaissance panels.

A wooden step ladder was a balcony. Two blue pennants and two yellow pennants depicted the feuding Montagues and Capulets.

With costume changes, six actors covered 31 roles including one who wears a fat suit to play Juliet's nurse. Classical guitarist John Ross set the scenes with 100-year-old impressionistic music.

"Too often when we study Shakespeare, it is only on the page," said Hutchison humanities director Barry Gilmore. "It is never the same as a live performance, especially with this company."

Although a senior and long past studying "Romeo and Juliet," Stratford-on-Avon English exchange student Rachel Harris loved the play.

"I've grown up with a lot of Shakespeare. It's like growing up with Elvis," she said.

At home, she and her classmates walked to the Royal Shakespeare Company and its actors visited her school.

"We borrow their costumes," she said. "I've worn one of Portia's gowns in 'The Merchant of Venice.' "

Afterward, Harris said, "The language is so rich, whether it's performed with British accents or American accents, you are so absorbed into the story."

After the play, the actors took questions. They gave the students a bit of reality about acting.

"I am a Starbucks employee in Seattle," said Juliet (a.k.a. actress Allison Standley). "Find a flexible job, until you make it big on Broadway."

-- Lela Garlington: (901) 529-2349


More plays slated

Shakespeare in the Park April 11-22, The Tempest at Shelby Farms Park

Southern Exposure Series May 23-June 3, Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie at Dixon Gallery & Gardens

Visit for tickets and information.