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SHAKESPEARE GOES TO SCHOOL

SHARE SHAKESPEARE GOES TO SCHOOL

"All the world's a stage" is an oft-quoted line from William Shakespeare.

And Pam Blackwell, through her fledgling Junior Shakespeare Company, is expanding the world of Shakespeare into as many multipurpose rooms, cafeterias and classrooms throughout the Salt Lake Valley as she can crowd onto her busy calendar.Just recently, I had the privilege of seeing her young troupe of performers embark on one of their first "road trips" - to entertain and enlighten the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders at Fox Hills Elementary School in the Granite School District.

Three or four youngsters are always chosen at random from the school audience for "cameo" roles in the productions. One of the students selected at Fox Hills - Joshua Dennis - made big headlines a few days later when he was lost in the Oquirrh Mountains during a Scouting trip. After he was found, members of the troupe sent him a card congratulating him on his "outstanding performance."

Teachers who might have been concerned at first that a roomful of youngsters raised on Indiana Jones and Saturday morning TV cartoons would fidget and squirm through an hour of Shakespeare had nothing to worry about. Blackwell selects just a few of the best-known scenes from the Shakespearean catalog, then packages them together in a way that keeps the young audience mesmerized by the swordplay and drama on stage. In many cases, the performers aren't much older than the viewers in the audience.

Treachery. Violence. Greed. Murder. Lust. Deceit. Hate. Plus a little romance (not too gushy, please) and comedy.

While these may be the same character traits that pop up daily on the soap operas, they're also ingredients in Shakespeare's classic plots, from the drama of "Macbeth" and the tender romance of "Romeo and Juliet" to the impish comedy of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

For kids who think a puck is just a round block of wood being battered around a hockey rink, seeing Brook Horman in his portrayal of the mischievous imp is a real eye-opener.

For that matter, if you've ever wondered about where some of the future actors for Salt Lake City's professional and community theaters are coming from, there are some up-and-coming actors in Blackwell's troupe who show real promise.

Michael Shirts, 15, a sophomore at West High School; Tim Maness, 16, a sophomore at Skyline; Erik Sorensen, 13, who attends Rowland Hall-St. Mark's; Tanya Stephens, a sophomore at Cottonwood High; Quisha Nielson, 15, a sophomore at Skyline; Jim Rounds, 16, a junior at Olympus; and the aforementioned Horman, display a range of acting talent far beyond their years.

Horman, especially, is an incredible performer. As Puck, he literally leaps off the stage and into the audience.

Tim Maness' talent was discovered by Jill Gerrish, his junior high school history teacher, who is now a director of one of Blackwell's two performing companies. Gerrish had asked Maness to bring a paper up to her desk, and he went into a quickly improvised hunchback routine, then shuffled up the aisle.

"She saw something in him then and pulled him into her ninth-grade acting classes," said Blackwell.

Some of her Junior Shakespeare Company students are also involved in drama in high school. Like Shirts, who was excited about the opportunity of being on a team representing West High at the 12th annualHigh School Shakespeare Competition at Cedar City.

Then there's Faith Partee, another sophomore from Skyline, who had no acting experience when she joined the company. But her father teaches Shakespeare at the University of Utah and she knows Shakespeare inside and out.

"Initially, she was very quiet, but in six months' time she has blossomed as an actress. She's just been cast as the second witch in our `Macbeth' production," said Blackwell.

The youths in the company come from all over the valley and meet once a week, but, according to Blackwell, they share "an incredible sense of being kindred spirits. The kids call it `bonding.' "

Blackwell admitted that there are times she gets a little discouraged with the lack of support that some of her performers get from their schools. The Granite District, for instance, has a new absentee program. Students missing class 10 times, no matter what the reason, automatically fail the class.

"But these are highly talented, motivated kids, and other schools have said they will deal with any attendance problems internally," Blackwell said.

Most schools are very supportive, allowing Blackwell's actors to leave school twice a month to take Shakespeare's works into other schools.

Her Junior Shakespeare Company is really two separate troupes - the Lord Chamberlain's Company, made up of students in the 11-15 age group, and the King's Company, for those who are 15-18. Shakespeare himself had a similar arrangement with his Lord Chamberlain's Men and King's Men, comprising 24 performers each.

Company members pay $10 per week while in rehearsal and during performances to cover the costs of the director and voice, movement and other acting specialists.

Blackwell's base of operations is Evergreen Junior High School, where the companies rehearse and the where classes are taught through the Granite Community Education program for potential members.

In May, Blackwell announced auditions for the company. More than 40 youths showed up and 22 were initially taken into the company.

"I was astonished at the quality of the youths' talent," she said.

But she was even more amazed at the response to notices she sent out to determine the amount of interest in mounting a "Shakespeare in the Schools" program. She had expected, maybe, 50 positive responses.

Instead, she said, "it turned out to be phenomenal."

She received more than 200 requests to bring her troupe into grade schools, middle schools and junior and senior highs in school districts in the Greater Salt Lake area.

But before the 1989-90 school year began, the Junior Shakespeare Company had some opportunities to perform during the Renaissance Festival on the opening weekend of the Utah Shakespearean Festival, then returned to perform at the festival's Children's Day in the Adams Memorial Shakespeare Theatre.

R. Scott Phillips, festival marketing director, was impressed.

"It may be a one-of-a-kind in the country, kids doing Shakespeare for kids," he told Blackwell during their Southern Utah State College visit. "The Junior Shakespeare Company is probably one of the most exciting and energetic young companies presenting Shakespeare in the Intermountain West today."

The company likely will have an expanded presence in the Cedar City festival activities during 1990.

The troupe also performed during the Utah Arts Festival at the Triad Center.

The company is now booked into about 40 schools this school year, including the Salt Lake, Granite and Jordan school districts and some private schools.

Blackwell charges $100 per performance. This includes a visit to the school by coordinator Donna Nielsen prior to the performance with a slide show and lecture about Shakespearean times, including what it would have been like to be a child during that era. Students also sample candy and treats of the period and are able to read copies of the scripts, which helps them understand what's happening on stage when the Junior Shakespeare Company visits the school a week or two later.

For an additional $100, Blackwell and her support staff will come into the school and help them stage their own Shakespearean production.

In addition to the hourlong sampling of Shakespearean works, Blackwell's students and assistants go into the classrooms following the performances to field questions from the pupils about Shakespeare and his works.

Blackwell, recently returned to Salt Lake City after living for several years in Hawaii, where she and a friend, frustrated by the lack of classical theater, formed a small company of children to perform Shakespeare.

During a global tour with her daughter, Blackwell stopped in Salt Lake City and decided it was "time to come back home." She also teaches psychology and theater classes at Salt Lake Community College and is a part-time family and group counselor at a Charter counseling center.

But the Junior Shakespeare Company, which she began after she and Suzanne McKenna, professor of theater at SLCC, discussed the similar effort she had tried in Hawaii, consumes about 40-50 hours a week of her time.

Blackwell has also surrounded herself with a number of creative assistants, including road manager John Newman, a graduate student at the U. and an instructor in the U.'s Theater School for Youth; movement and stage combat specialist Jack Livingston, a sixth-grade teacher at Granger Elementary and a master at Tai'chi and Aikido; creative director Diane Englert, a local actress who recently completed a role in TheatreWorks West's "The House of Bernarda Alba"; co-directors Jill Gerrish and Lesa Love, and Nielsen, who telephones the schools and coordinates the bookings.

Blackwell also has praise for costume mistress Jo Anne Miller, a mother of seven who not only designs the costumes, but creates them (for about $20 each) from thrift store hand-me-down purchases.

Other helpful support is provided by production assistant Denise Scothern, whose All-Makes Rentals furnishes a van each week from the firm's rental pool for transporting props and costumes to the various schools where the company is performing.

"We are at a point now where we are incorporated as a non-profit corporation. We're planning an `Adopt-a-Shakespearean' fund-raising program, hoping to encourage firms or businesses to `adopt' a student and help them with their tuition, scholarships and costumes, etc.," Blackwell said.

Other fund-raising projects in the works include a "Will Shakespeare's Greatest Hits" night with local celebrities performing with the company and a Bard's Birthday Ball on or near Shakespeare's birthday (April 23), with a Renaissance style feast and dance to raise money for the scholarship fund.

Those interested in helping fund the program can write to:

The Junior Shakespeare Company, P.O. Box 21403, Salt Lake City, UT 84121, or call Pam Blackwell at 485-3555.

To register in the academy classes, contact Evergreen Junior High School at 481-7218.

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Additional information

Mark these dates

Not all of the Junior Shakespeare Company performances are in the schools. On Monday, Oct. 30, they'll participate in a special "tot walk" in the Haunted Woods at Wheeler Historic Farm. Among the scenes to be performed there will be a segment from "Macbeth" with the three witches.

. (The "tot walk" is designed to let younger children enjoy a daytime look at the Haunted Woods, which is more frightening at night.)

The following day, on Halloween, the company will perform at the Children's Museum of Utah about 4 p.m., following a children's costume parade. The museum's party starts at 3 p.m.

The company will also present "Will Shakespeare's Greatest Hits" for the general public on Nov. 17 and 18 at 7:30 p.m. in the Promised Valley Playhouse Little Bowery. Admission is $3.50 per person at $10 per family.