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Expose Yourself to Shakespeare!

Kathryn Franke
MSM Class of 2013

(3/2012) I’m sure most of you have read at least one of Shakespeare’s plays in school before, and I’m sure most of you remember the groans from some of the students (maybe even you) as they tried to comprehend the old-fashioned vocabulary and the artful language for which he is famous. Shakespeare is one of those people who can cause mixed reactions from people, but if you really look deep into his works, you will be amazed at the impact they can have and even how they can be related to the modern day.

I had the pleasure of attending the Maryland Shakespeare Festival’s (MSF) performance of The Merchant of Venice, which was a part of their first Bare Bard Repertory Season. The season included performances of Julius Caesar, All’s Well That Ends Well, Much Ado About Nothing, and The Merchant of Venice. As I flipped through the playbill that was given out at the play, I saw the program note that explained all that went into making the season possible. Some of the main things that I admired so much about the play were exactly the things that they had hoped would have such a powerful effect on the performance. So I would definitely say that they were extremely successful and their artistic vision became a reality!

To really get the effect of what Shakespeare’s plays were like in his time, the program explained that "the lack of technical elements such as lighting and scenery simplified each production." This was actually one of my favorite parts of the performance. We are so accustomed to plays with over-the-top scenery and costumes, but the simplicity of those things in MSF plays helps accentuate the acting, the passion, the humor, the emotion, and the storyline itself. This way, the surrounding details do not distract us, but rather we are drawn in by the characters and the plot, as if the events are happening for the first time before our very eyes. You are captivated by what is occurring right in front of you, and that is what plays are all about, after all.

I also loved the actors’ improvisation and interaction with the audience members. They sat with us, talked directly to us, asked us questions, and made the play more relatable. The acting in general mesmerized the audience, but the interactive nature of the play made us feel like we were a part of it. It was obvious that the superb acting had formed strong emotional bonds between the audience members and the characters, which was made apparent when the audience erupted in cheers when Bassanio won Portia’s hand.

Another thing mentioned in the program was the fact that "the same core group of actors" was used for each production. Amazingly, the actors barely get any rehearsal time to prepare for these performances because they are based on improvisation, and yet I could immediately sense the camaraderie between the actors in the play. From the second they made their first appearance, the audience was blown away by the ease with which they interacted and brought the play to life. You could tell that they mesh well as a group, yet at the same time, every individual monologue was just as powerful. The actors were strong as individual parts and as a whole, which made the overall effect of the play that much more riveting.

Most important of all, the actors looked like they enjoyed every single moment of the performance. They showed such emotion and expression through their acting, using strong gestures and facial expressions to really convey their characters’ roles. John Bellomo, Artistic Director of the company, explained that the actors are of a wide range of ages and levels of experience, but most of them have been acting for a while. And I can vouch for the fact that you can tell that they are all very experienced, because it shows in their performances!

Bellomo explains that the goal is to "go back to the roots of Shakespeare’s plays to bring new vitality to these classic stories" and remind the audience of the ultimate goal of Shakespeare’s plays, which is "enjoyment for everyone." But the MSF doesn’t stop there. This summer, the MSF will be touring A Midsummer Night’s Dream to outdoor venues all throughout the state of Maryland. In their Good Will Summer Tour, many of the performances are free of charge for the audiences and a great event for the family. The performances include live music, interaction with the audience, and captivating storytelling that will entertain people of any age. The MSF will also be putting on Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid at the Frederick Cultural Arts Center this fall.

Through June 1st of this summer, the Shakespeare Alive! School Tour 2012 will be taking place throughout the state. An interactive introduction to the world of Shakespeare, this series is a highly theatrical production put on by the professional company members. For middle school students across Maryland, the performances will bring Shakespeare’s plays to life, as they are filled with humor, passion, and expertise. The MSF describes the performances as "fast-paced and engaging" ways to learn valuable information about the world of Shakespeare and explore the language he uses. The tour pays special attention to the plays that are a part of the Maryland Middle School Curriculum, and it highlights Shakespeare’s "greatest hits." It is meant to help students have a better understanding of his plays and really learn something from them, ultimately hoping that they will want to learn even more about Shakespeare as a result!

Led by the professional actors, Shakespeare Into Action! is a series of interactive workshops that really get students involved with the plays themselves. The workshops create opportunities for the students to use their own ideas and form their own interpretations of the plays, which causes them to have a deeper relationship with Shakespeare’s stories and also the language he uses. The workshops are designed to follow the Shakespeare Alive! performances, but they can also stand on their own or can be altered to fit any age group.

Regarding this MSF school program, Managing Director Candace Sorensen says, "We perform in middle schools throughout the state and do 1-2 week residencies, funded by the Maryland State Arts Council. These residencies are curriculum-based and enhance the English state standards of education for 6th, 7th and 8th grades." The MSF has altered the way we study Shakespeare, and it has given us the opportunity to have a much better understanding of the plays, regardless of age or experience with reading them. By taking a step back and remembering the true meaning behind his plays, they have taken a step forward in terms of revitalizing their importance in our lives.

So now you must ask yourself one thing. To go, or not to go: that is the question. Before you groan and admit defeat when it comes to understanding the oh-so-confusing Shakespeare, give it a chance. When I went to see The Merchant of Venice, giggles, applause, and cheers replaced all of those groans that I was accustomed to hearing from my classes. Trust me, everyone should see one of the MSF plays, whether you are a fan Shakespeare or not, because I promise you that you will enjoy it, learn from it, and have a greater appreciation for Shakespeare as his plays are brought to life before your eyes.

For more information about the Maryland Shakespeare Festival and upcoming performances and programs, please visit or call 301-668-4090.

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