“But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.”
Huh? What is Romeo saying?
“We compare it to a puzzle,” smiles Emily Mattina, artistic director, CEO and founder of Shakesperience in Waterbury. “We say it’s like figuring out a secret code.”
Through workshops in the schools, the theater company teaches 55,000 students per year about the beauty of the Bard. When kids figure out that Romeo is using a metaphor to compare his lady love to the rising sun, they find confidence, as well as an appreciation for the written and spoken word.
“One of the reasons I really, really love Shakespeare is the empathy,” says Mattina, a mother of two. “You find this person who lived 400 years ago, seeing people from all different walks of life and I think that it is only by really studying that, that we can truly become empathetic.”
The workshops, which mix lecture with participation, take place all around New England in middle and high schools. Additionally, Shakesperience is busy in the summer with a winery tour, culminating in a performance of “Much Ado About Nothing” at McLaughlin Vineyards in Newtown on Aug. 24, and a recent camp for kids in Guilford.
“When we start mentioning ‘iambic pentameter,’ that’s when they get that look on their faces, like, ‘What are you talking about?'” says Jordan Westfall, an actor with the group (www.shashakesperienceproductions.org.)
That’s when the lesson changes. “It’s important to remember that Shakespeare was writing these plays to be performed, not necessarily read, as the great literature we see it as today,” says Rebecca Brown, education and stage manager. “By putting a body and a voice to it, it really changes your perspective.”
When kids learn to deconstruct the text, they begin to feel as though they are part of something important, something that has lasted for centuries. Their pride is palpable, Westfall says: “It really allows them to feel good about themselves, that they can tackle this material that’s hard for adults even.”
Brown believes exposure to these works of art can sharpen a youngster’s cognitive and storytelling skills as Shakespeare shows the human spirit.
“His universal themes are my favorite part about him,” she says. “His poetry is gorgeous, but at the same time it’s so accessible to a modern audience.”
Mattina is moved by the passion and enthusiasm she witnesses: “Our testimonials bring tears to my eyes quite frequently, from young people and adults alike. We hear things that just make us realize how important this mission is.”