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'Suit the Action to the Word'

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Washington--Backstage at the Elizabethan Theater, Folger Shakespeare Library: The cast members of The Tempest, who in their nontheatrical lives are 7th- through 9th-grade students at the Westminster School in Annandale, Va., are huddled behind the black curtain that hides the stage. The actors are in full costume--velvet jerkins, tights, wigs, glued-on beards, robes, capes, and the modern equivalent of Elizabethan footgear, which bears a strong resemblance to bedroom slippers.

They are waiting while an actor from the Folger's resident company explains the plot of the play to the assembled audience--students, teachers, and parents from schools in and around Washington. The actor is nearly finished. It is almost time to go on stage.

"Geez, I'm scared," says Caliban, who draws his black cape more closely around him. He, unlike his classmates, is not armed with a cardboard sword, and so cannot distract himself by making sure that it is buckled on correctly. Instead, he tugs at his beard, part of which comes off in his hand.

Alonzo, who wears red and black satin, also appears a bit edgy. Is he nervous? He shoots the questioner a quick and disgusted glance. "Yeah," he says.

But when the moment comes, the scene that the group has chosen proceeds smoothly, with the players making their exits and entrances on cue. "You were very good, Caliban," says Peggy O'Brien, education coordinator for the Folger, who has spent months getting ready for this third annual secondary-school Shakespeare festival.

The festival, in which students from Washington-area junior and senior high schools compete, is sponsored by the library's volunteer docents, who give tours and perform other tasks. By participating in the festival, students are able not only to perform Shakespeare's plays, but to perform them in the Elizabethan Theater, which is modeled after theaters of the time. The library itself, administered by the trustees of Amherst College, is the largest and most comprehensive collection of materials on the Elizabethan period in the U.S.

24 Schools Participating

This year, 24 schools are participating in the three-day festival. Each using their "roadbox" of props--which for one school includes real swords--the students take up to half an hour to perform their scene or scenes. They use the scenery of whatever play happens to be playing at the theater--in this case, John Dryden's Marriage a la Mode.

Those who were not accepted immediately, like the Cromwell Academy, a Washington private school, were placed on a waiting list. The students from Cromwell learned less than one week before the festival that they had reached the top of the list and would be able to participate. Since the teacher who would have worked with them was called out of town on an emergency, Craig Seymour, a 7th-grade student, took on the task of directing the scene from Hamlet that the group selected.

"I feel pretty good that we're doing the best we can," Mr. Seymour says as he and the four cast members await their turn on stage. The group spent most of the preceding weekend rehearsing and relied on parents for help with costumes and props.

Ralph Powe, who plays Hamlet, sees his character as "very smart, but he's on the verge of committing suicide, so mentally he's not too good."

The process of reading and rehearsing the play, Mr. Powe says, advanced his understanding and appreciation of Shakespeare. "Now I understand more of the words, and what he's all about," he says.

Francine Wright, who plays Ophelia, says that she, too, has changed her conception of the character. "At first, I got the impression that she was very innocent, sweet, and helpless," she says. But now she has started to see Ophelia as a more complex character.

Contemporary Interpretation

While the group from Cromwell performs upstairs, students from Wheaton High School in Wheaton, Md., are preparing for what appears to be a more contemporary interpretation of Shakespeare. A boy wearing a belted trenchcoat and a brown fedora adjusts his sunglasses and a girl in a surgical scrub suit puts the final touches on her makeup. Several other students wear army fatigues, striped leotards, or 1950's-style attire.

James Wu, a junior at Wheaton, explains that the students' presentation, entitled "Death in the Afternoon," will use material from many Shakespeare plays. Mr. Wu and another student play the roles of two bored modern teen-agers who are watching television. Each time they change channels, they watch a scene from a different Shakespeare play. All of the scenes culminate in at least one death.

Between the "programs," the two watch commercials, which also use Shakespearean dialogue. Also using lines from the plays, the teen-agers comment on what they have seen.

This is the second year that the class has participated in the festival, Mr. Wu said, adding that in the process of doing so, many students have modified their opinion of the playwright. "Usually, before we acted Shakespeare, what we knew was word of mouth. We heard things like, 'Shakespeare is boring and dull.' When we got into the acting, we found out that it is not that bad."

"Last year, we were observers," says Rusty Clauss, a drama teacher from Edison High School in Alexandria, Va. "I thought, 'Oh, we've got to do that.' The plant itself is so unique. It gives students a feeling of history they can't get from looking at pictures of the Globe [theater]. And by seeing all the other schools and the different approaches, they learn so much."

Ms. Clauss and her students rehearsed their scenes from Macbeth for about six weeks and have arranged a performance at their school as well as at the festival. She says preparing the scenes has shown the students a new dimension of Shakespeare. "It makes studying it in class so much more vital, more immediate," she says. "It's not just words on paper."

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