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Youth meet the Bard in Holyoke

Date: 8/4/2010

Aug. 4, 2010

By Lori Szeplak


HOLYOKE -- For six teens in Holyoke this summer, participating in the Youth and Shakespeare project has been transformative.

Youth and Shakespeare is a five-week intensive summer school program for rising eighth and ninth grade students in Springfield and Holyoke, according to Priscilla Kane Hellweg, executive/artistic director of Enchanted Circle Theater (ECT).

The program integrates theater and performance studies with academic English Language curricula and culminates in a public performance of scenes from a Shakespearean play. Aaron "Brando" Brandes is serving as the director of the Holyoke production of "Julius Caesar."

Kane Hellweg noted that the program is a creative collaboration between ECT, Massachusetts Center for Interdisciplinary Renaissance Studies, the Holyoke Public Schools 21st Century Connections Program, the Springfield Public Schools Office of Visual and Performing Arts, University of Massachusetts and Hampshire Shakespeare Company.

"It has been amazing to see how these students always seem to find their way into the stories, into the language of William Shakespeare," Brandes said.

Brandes noted he was "nervous" about directing the play with an all-girls cast.

"I thought that they would not be able to identify with the characters or the time period, and they would think the play is just a bunch of boring speeches," he said, adding, "but the girls have plunged totally into the story, into their roles, and we have transformed this play into a dynamic and visual spectacle."

Following a warm-up concentration exercise and a dress rehearsal, the girls were eager to take a break from the stage and talk about their experiences to Reminder Publications.

For Genesis Colon, the best part of the project has been learning the acting techniques of combat.

"I like the combat scenes and learning how to fake dieing," Colon said.

Kaylese Gomez has enjoyed the experience of being on stage, and learning how to be present in the moment.

"The project has helped us get to know the stage and how to move around it," Gomez said.

Making new friends was also a reoccurring theme during the interview.

Alexandra Ramos, not only said she has enjoyed learning acting skills and making new friends, but the program gave her more insight from field trips they participated in.

"I enjoyed visiting colleges, which will help me to choose where I want to go when I graduate," Ramos said.

The five-week project also included four field trips with visits to the Mount Holyoke Museum of Art, the UMass Theater Department, the Botanic Garden of Smith College and the Smith College Museum of Art, and a preview performance of "The Complete Works of Shakespeare" at New Century Theatre.

Idalis Salgado said this experience has been fun and a wonderful learning experience on several fronts.

"We've met new people and we've learned a style of language that is different and poetic," Salgado said, adding, "it's like a song in my head."

Madison Morris plays Caesar, and said she is not like him at all.

"He's not like me," Morris said. "I'm not conceited, I'm not a know-it-all."

Morris added that her experience has been "empowering" to step into the role of Caesar.

Danissa Montanez has also enjoyed the theater experience, and noted that the hardest part of the project has been memorizing lines.

"There is a lot to memorize and a lot to do on stage, but I like a challenge," she said.

Shannon Fournier, a sixth grade English teacher at Peck, is also working with the girls on the production and has enjoyed her first year as part of the ECT project.

"Overall it's been a good experience, but also a struggle for me since I have never performed on stage," Fournier said.

Fournier noted that working on this production has helped her to better understand the play which will help her when she immerses her English students with the classics in the coming school year.

"I plan to use a different reading strategy now," she added.

The culmination of all the girls' hard work will come to fruition on Aug. 5 at 10:30 a.m. in the Peck auditorium when scenes from "Julius Caesar" will be staged.

The public is invited to experience an "extraordinary morning of creativity, language arts, theater and music with the students," Kane Hellweg said.

After the final bows are taken, the girls will no doubt remember the summer of 2010 as being extra special. When asked how they would describe their director, "awesome," "brilliant," "fun," "wise," and "creative" were all shouted out almost instantaneously.

Of course, the feeling is mutual from Brandes' perspective.

"The power of the stage, the power of embodying text, the hard work inherent in acting is transformative, and that fact always amazes me," Brandes said.