Quintessence Theatre Group founder and Artistic Director Alex Burns found out last year, in his company’s second season, that local kids weren’t the only ones interested in Quintessence’s Shakespeare youth workshops.
“We started getting more and more adults or parents saying, ‘Can I take the children’s class?’ Would that be weird for the kids?'”
The answer, Burns says, was yes – that would be a bit weird. But this year, he has a solution.
For the first time, Quintessence is offering an adult Shakespeare workshop, scheduled to begin Feb.19, in addition to their youth class.
“We wanted to see if we could create a class for adults who were interested in exploring Shakespeare actively,” says Burns.
A valuable experience
The class is not, however, aimed only at adults who dream of taking the stage someday.
“For the lawyer, for the future politician, for the person who wants to be able to better articulate themselves at a party, looking at Shakespeare as a guide is incredibly helpful,” Burns explains of the value of examining Shakespeare’s language and learning how to express it.
The six-week course will encompass an introduction to several sonnets before moving onto speeches from Hamlet, a play chosen for its range of material, both comic and tragic, for all ages and genders.
Burns says learning to read Shakespeare’s work aloud – versus experiencing it as written literature – can be useful for mastering rhetoric in speech, emotion versus reason, and gaining a better understanding of the structure of the English language.
To “learn these speeches and have them in your mind as an English speaker is invaluable,” he insists.
Of course, there are many challenges to bringing Shakespeare to adults who have little knowledge of – or perhaps little affection for – the Bard.
“People have usually had a sort of disinterested high school English teacher who was forced to teach these plays, and didn’t really get them themselves,” Burns says. With such a lackluster introduction, people “have these fears that it’s this foreign language that’s so old and has no connection to them.”
Burns’ approach is to emphasize the rhythms of the language as much as the meanings of the words (“There are so many ways to hook into it,” he says).
Burns wants his students to understand that performing Shakespeare is like a form of singing.
That lesson may not be easy to teach.
The physical and emotional release required of thespians can be difficult in a modern culture that rarely relies on the physical voice. For people “to trust themselves and to feel free enough to fully use their voice, take a deep breath and speak a word with full meaning and presence is a hugely challenging thing to do,” Burns says.
” What I love about classical theater is that you’re being asked, as an instrument, to rise to the occasion of the words.”
In his Shakespeare workshop, he’s ready to help anyone with that transformation. “How do you, Marybeth Smith from Mt. Airy, become Queen Elizabeth?”
While kids and adults are looking for a lot of the same things in a theater class (to play by engaging the body and exploring characters), Burns says he thinks that the Shakespeare experience is richer for adults, who typically have a greater personal understanding of the conflicts in the plays.
“What in your life has made you into a Gertrude or a Claudius or a Hamlet? How does your experience further empower the text that you are speaking?'” says Burns.
Quintessence’s Shakespeare Adult Workshop will be held at the Sedgwick Theater in Mt. Airy on Tuesday evenings from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. The course costs $150 and has room for up to sixteen adults.