Stage & Dance

Shakespeare's plays offer young actors lessons in language and life

From left, Joshua Dhir as Lennox, Troy Walton as Duncan, Scott DiMeo as Malcolm and Shelby Nance as Donalbain in a SCAPA production of Macbeth.
From left, Joshua Dhir as Lennox, Troy Walton as Duncan, Scott DiMeo as Malcolm and Shelby Nance as Donalbain in a SCAPA production of Macbeth. Herald-Leader

Young generations might be more fluent in the shortcuts of text messaging, but that doesn't mean that they can't fully wield the linguistic arsenal of Shakespeare or grasp the deeper meanings of his work in ways that are relevant to 21st-century life.

A spate of student Shakespeare productions this month highlights the importance of The Bard's work in the training of young artists.

This weekend, SCAPA launches an ambitious production of Macbeth, directed by longtime drama teacher Paul Thomas, while Matthew Johnson, former associate artistic director of the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, directs Much Ado About Nothing at the University of Kentucky. Lexington Catholic, Tates Creek and Dunbar high schools also have Shakespeare on the menu this theater season, and Transylvania University has mounted an original Shakespeare-inspired play, Shakespeare in Mind, that explores the playwright's enduring appeal.

Thomas said he chose to produce Macbeth this year because he had a group of students who he thought were ready to dive into the material.

"We've done all kinds of rather challenging work before," Thomas said. "We've done a number of very challenging things, like Amadeus and Elephant Man, but I really wanted to make the leap into the Shakespearean language."

Fortunately for Thomas, many of his students had been exposed to Elizabethan language in middle school productions of truncated Shakespeare shows.

Both Macbeth leads, SCAPA junior Kelsey Waltermire and Lafayette senior Brandon Critchfield, had played Shakespearian roles as middle schoolers and used those experiences as springboards for the meaty roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. The duo also spent weeks of intense rehearsal before the rest of the cast began rehearsing to nail down not only the language but their characters' relationship.

"It was all about making sure that our characters had the proper emotions in their words and making sure we knew what we were saying," said Critchfield, 17. "It's so easy to be able to say something and put a fake meaning behind it, and if you do that, the audience can get the wrong message, because you don't know what it truly means."

Johnson also began his rehearsal process with a deep dissection of the language.

"The student actors ask a lot of questions, which is great," Johnson says. "A lot of adult actors don't ask as many questions about Shakespeare's language, because they don't want to appear to their peers like they don't already know."

"Once the students figure out how dirty it is, they have a great time with it," said Johnson, referring to Shakespeare's overt and covert bawdiness, which appears in most of his plays, but particularly in romantic comedies including Much Ado.

But discovering the hidden gems in an archaic language is only one of the student benefits of Shakespeare productions. Breaking the language barrier gives students access to timeless, complex themes that are relevant to their own lives.

"Even though she's older than I am," Waltermire, 16, said of Lady Macbeth, who she imagines to be in her 20s in this version of the play, "she experiences things young people can all relate to. We've all wanted something we couldn't have, or felt envy or ambition."

"The play has a lot of overall good messages," Critchfield said, "such as don't pay attention to evil because it will come back to bite you."

Johnson said that over time, being involved with multiple Shakespeare productions can illuminate one's understanding of the human experience in ways not found in contemporary works, and that's part of the reason his work remains relevant.

"In Shakespeare, characters are very contradictory," said Johnson, who has played dozens of Shakespeare roles in his tenure at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, including Hamlet and King Lear.

"They might say one thing on stage and then behave in a completely opposite way in the next moment," Johnson said "There's comedy in the tragedies and tragedy in comedies.

"Modern audiences want things to make sense, they want a character who goes from A to B to C. But with Shakespeare, characters go from A to Q to Z. Humans are complicated."

As young people discover and sort through their own complications, Shakespeare can prove a worthy guide in understanding not just their own lives but the world around them.

For example, the beheading scene at the end of Macbeth was suddenly a sensitive, controversial topic because of recent beheadings by the terrorist group ISIS.

"It's very common in many productions for Macbeth's head, or what is ostensibly Macbeth's head, to be brought out on stage," Thomas said. "Because of world affairs, I knew I wasn't going to do that. But that made the point to the kids even more — this kind of evil is still a reality in the 21st century."

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