By Alison Rooney
Garrison Middle School Language Arts teacher Ian Berger has always loved the “play’ in Shakespeare. The inventiveness, the plot twists, the chicanery, the buffoonery. When he came to teach at the school six years ago, he pondered how to integrate his love for Shakespeare into the middle school curriculum. The first stumbling block was knowing that the holy trinity of Shakespearian texts used in high school ”Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth” were off limits not just because they would be studied later, but because the content of these plays didn’t jive well with younger students. At first this was a frustration for Mr. Berger, but then he realized that it was instead “quite freeing, because instead I was able to pick those plays which suit these grades.”
A summer spent at the New York city-based Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival Summer “Teaching Shakespeare” Institute “completely opened my eyes to another way of doing Shakespeare. My first reaction was ‘these people think like me!’ that there’s another way of presenting and performing Shakespeare aside from the canonized version,” said Berger. Realizing that “the story matters very much to the kids” it’s an important consideration, and also that comedies, or plays with a lot of comedic content were the way to go at this age, Berger chose three, to be rotated each year: The Tempest, with its elements of fantasy and magic, Twelfth Night, with its gender disguises and clowning and this year’s Much Ado About Nothing with its bickering, “won’t admit they really love each other”protagonists and an evil, scheming uncle. Another component of all of these plays is emotion. “The kids really respond to some of the raw emotions – probably because they’re always yelling at each other,” Berger said (with a smile.)
Everything begins with the traditional text. Students read the original, but as the process goes along, the original morphs into a new version, one edited by Berger with an eye towards performance. He notes, “As we get further along it becomes less about learning the play and more about performing the text.”
The one steadfast rule is that everyone goes on stage, and everyone speaks, even the shyest of the shy. Since there are never enough parts for all of the students, Berger always creates crowd and party scenes, with attendants, so that those more reticent children who feel less comfortable with acting can feel more part of an ensemble, but yet still partake of the experience. Berger feels that “we all have times in live when we have to present ourselves well, whether it’s an interview, or anything. This experience is completely positive for these kids.” Berger has another method for adding roles (he admits he stole it from Kenneth Branagh): he sometimes frames the play within a different construct. For instance with this year’s production, he has created a pretend “reality show” which is filming the presentation of the play, thus creating new roles for the director and others associated with a television production. There’s an added benefit to this super-imposition: the “framers” are able to translate the finer points of the play for the younger members of the audience, who might have a hard time “getting” it all.
The “it” all in this version of Much Ado is set on a beach, complete with surfboards, palm trees, beach balls, lounge chairs, sunscreen and windsurfers. The school’s press release states, “Theatergoers will watch as young lovers spat, tempers flare, evil-doers scheme and joy triumphs in this tropical venue. Many of the main characters partake in gossip, eavesdropping and spreading unfounded rumors“ – yep, sounds perfect for middle school!
Berger is excited that “this year the kids are getting involved with the play at a level I’ve never seen before; they’re taking ownership of it. For example, we had a prop and a girl came up to me and asked if she could completely re-do it, with bamboo and all sorts of other things. We have a student, Serena Wessely, acting as assistant director. There’s another young man, Cooper Nugent, who has basically invented the job of stage manager. On his own, he made a map of the stage, printed out a copy for every scene and drew where the props were. That’s what a stage manager does and he didn’t even know it! I didn’t make this happen – they did.”
The shows are presented “in the round” which Berger feels is the best possible way to do them. “First of all, we don’t have to worry about scenery, which forces kids to focus on their performances. Also, they don’t have to “cheat” and turn towards the audience, which can be awkward. Getting out in the middle is exposing, but it allows you to move in interesting ways.”
Other staff and parents are lending their talents to the production. Guidance counselor Mike Williams, formerly an actor, has taken charge of the lighting, and Boo Close, mother of 8th grader Peter, is helping with the costumes, although “the kids are bringing things in every day – they’re doing 80 percent of it,” says Berger.
Katie Feder, an acting coach from Peekskill (she’s currently directing Seussical at Peekskill High), is also helping out, and Berger is grateful to her for teaching him an enormous amount, for despite his enthusiasm, he doesn’t come from a theater background. “Now I’m the theater guy, but I still don’t know that much really – just a babe in the woods.” (Berger has been teaching for eight years in total. He was formerly an “IT person” and made a career switch that he is very happy about.) Feder is enthusiastic about the program. “This is the third year I’ve been involved. They’re bright and creative kids and there’s wonderful support from the administration and parents. I worked with some of these kids when they were in 6th grade and now they’re able to handle the Shakespearian text and work hard at it. Mr. Berger comes up with such great ideas to make Shakespeare accessible for the kids and the audience.”
Berger calls the support he receives from the Garrison School administration “amazing – they’ve been more than helpful.” Rehearsals take place in a crazy quilt of mix and matching with Garrison school’s two eighth-grade classes. A Monday afternoon drama club helps scheduling matters greatly and in fact the kids are so eager that last year the then seventh graders asked if they could start work in advance of their eighth-grade school year.
All of that creative hard work comes to fruition next week when Much Ado About Nothing is performed, first on Thursday, April 7, at 1 p.m. in a dress rehearsal performance for the students, and, finally, next Friday evening, April 8, at 7 p.m. when the doors open to the public. Admission is free, and the entire community is welcome. Refreshments will be sold at intermission as a fundraiser for the eighth-grade trip to Boston.