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From the streets of Verona to the shores of Illyria, William Shakespeare’s tales of impossible love, mistaken identity, courageous actions and ridiculous brawls have enchanted audiences throughout the world across centuries. Widely regarded as the foremost English language playwright, the difficulty of his plays’ language for contemporary audiences challenges educators to find innovative ways to bring them alive once again in the classroom and on the stage.

Seniors enter into the land of Illyria, where nothing is as it seems

“My father had a daughter loved a man,

As it might be, perhaps, were I a woman,

I should your lordship.

— from Twelfth Night, Viola, disguised as the male servant Cesario, speaking to Duke Orsino of her secret love

Here at SJHS, through exciting workshops with Stages on the Sound, a Brooklyn based theatre education non-profit, students encounter the language of the plays by jumping right into the action. As they walk into the room, they are immediately given name tags with a character’s name – in this case seniors receive characters from the comedy Twelfth Night – and invited to join in a circle around the “stage,” the floor in the center.

In a fast-paced 40 minutes, the coaches bring the class through the play’s major scenes by drawing the students onto the stage and introducing them to their own characters. Dialogue and character traits are translated back and forth through examples and analogies familiar to students, and the comedic and tragic stories, based in the universality of human folly and desire, shines through and transcends the plays’ seemingly foreign Elizabethan context.

Olivia tries to woo Cessario

Sir Toby schemes

By the time class comes to an end, the students have not only heard the story of the play and seen it’s major moments on stage – they have immersed themselves in the storyline, characters, and dialogue by acting it out themselves. Some might think that acting workshops would be a difficult experience for normally shy or quiet students; however, these same students are often the ones who find a powerful voice and a prominent place through theatre, as the assignment of a character gives them the freedom to act silly, impassioned, angry, or loving without worrying about what anyone will think.

Freshwomen explore the tragic world of Romeo and Juliet

Shakespeare’s plays can come to life and invite all audiences into their lasting power when educators work to tap into the rich dramatic tapestry that lies within them, and invite students into a space where they can connect with these stories through their own experiences. Our partnership with Stages on the Sound is one of numerous ways that we seek to keep the arts and humanities alive at St. Joseph High School!

Freshwomen focused on Romeo and Juliet