Shakespeare workshop awakens youths to the power of the English language

'All the world's a stage' for young thespians There are strange sounds emanating from the Odd Fellows Hall in Ballard.

Inside the building, 17 young people are standing in a circle chanting "The big blue bug bit the black bear, and the big bear bled blood."

Repeated faster and faster, the words soon become jumbled. This exercise, practiced by members of the Young Shakespeare Workshop, helps to warm up the vocal chords before a performance.

The group is getting ready for a presentation of the classic farce "Love's Labour's Lost."

It's the hottest day of the year, but the young actors barely notice the stifling heat, even when dressed in heavy period costumes. It's 10 minutes before show time, and they are rushing about in preparation for the opening act.

Most of the cast, ranging from age 12 to 19, are second-year students in the Young Shake-speare Workshop (YSW).

Based at the University Heights Community Center, the tuition-free summer program provides youths with the opportunity to study and perform the classic works of playwright William Shakespeare.

Award-winning theater director Edward Payson Call established the program in 1992 to awaken young people to the power and beauty of the English language.

The two-tiered curriculum begins with first-year students working on sonnets and then progressing to speeches and scenes. Classes meet five days a week, and course work includes voice, text and Elizabethan-style fencing.

During the second year, students produce and perform an entire play, which is showcased at venues around Seattle. Past performances include "Romeo and Juliet," "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Macbeth."

One might think it would be difficult to convince teens to spend their summer studying 16th-century literature. Yet, there is no shortage of participants. In fact, more than 30 students enrolled this summer.

In its 13th year, the nonprofit workshop continues to attract youths from high schools around Seattle. Artistic director Darren Lay recruits participants by talking to teachers and giving presentations in classrooms.

Students also learn about the program through short-term residencies (mini versions of the summer workshop) set up in high schools to get them to try out Shakespeare.

Young people are drawn to the program for different reasons: Some want to improve their acting skills, others have an interest in the language and a few just want to get over their shyness.

Franklin High School senior Ari Hargrave, 17, joined three years ago and is now working as the summer stage manager.

"I really got a lot out of it. Your vocabulary expands, and your analytical and performance skills improve," she said. "If you're nervous in front of people, it helps you get up there and be comfortable on stage."

Though Hargrave may have been a model student, she concedes that many of her peers are indifferent to Shakespeare.

"I think that most kids aren't interested in it," Hargrave said. "They just think it's boring."

Shorewood High School graduate Mike Tilton, 19, didn't enjoy his early Shakespearean experiences.

"When I was reading through my first speech, I had no idea what it meant," said Tilton, who is starring as Lord Berowne in "Loves Labour's Lost." "[The program] helped me to not only get through his plays, but to also understand what it really means and the wit behind it. Now I'm really a big fan."

Applicants needn't have prior acting experience, or familiarity with Shakespeare's works. All that's required are a willingness to learn and an interest in the language.

"Acting is a byproduct of the program," YSW alumni Caitlin Steitzer said. The purpose "is to give kids the opportunity to love and use the language to its full extent."

A theater major at Brandeis University, Steitzer, 21, returned this summer to work as a voice coach.

Because the program is tuition-free, it attracts students who might not have an opportunity to participate.

"We get kids from all different areas of life. They are diverse in race and socio-economic status," Steitzer said.

For director Darren Lay, one of the greatest benefits of the program is that teens gain confidence in their ability to communicate and in their analytical skills.

"Once they take ownership of the words it becomes exciting to them. To be able to be eloquent and powerful in their speech is a really great feeling," he said. "It makes such a huge transformation in their lives."

The Young Shakespeare Workshop was recently recognized as a 2004 Coming Up Taller semifinalist by the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. The annual award recognizes and supports outstanding after-school and out-of-school arts and humanities programs for children and youths.

As a nonprofit, the Young Shake-speare Workshop subsists entirely on donations and occasional grant funding. To help out, contact Darren Lay, at 517-6930.

For more information about the Young Shakespeare Workshop, visit www.

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