Brush up your Shakespeare

Brush up your Shakespeare

TABC teens learn to love the bard

It was the best experience of my teaching career," said Carole Master, head of the English department at Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck. "Of course in English class you want students to learn to read and write, but it’s a bonus when you can get them to love and appreciate literature."

TABC performers each received a special "Shakesperience" T-shirt.

On May ”, Master’s 11th-grade honors English class, together with students from three public schools, performed scenes from Shakespearian plays as part of "Shakesperience," a forum where students in grades five through 1′ spent an entire day "engaging in live Shakespeare."

According to a statement from The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison, the program — resulting from a partnership of the theater, Rider University with campuses in Lawrenceville and Princeton, and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. — stresses the "shared belief in the power of Shakespeare in performance."

"We were the only yeshiva involved," said Master, pointing out each year she teaches a Shakespearian play to students in each grade. In addition, she said, she takes her classes to see performances of the plays they study.

"It caught my eye when I read about "Shakesperience," she said. "It’s the way I teach," she added, echoing the program’s contention that students can best understand, appreciate, and enjoy Shakespeare through performance.

"The boys are really busy with a dual curriculum," she said, but they came through — despite SATs, APs, and days lost to the junior trip.

"They obviously reviewed on the bus," said Master, adding that for the two weeks before the performance, the boys rehearsed every day.

"I tried to make it as painless as possible," she said. Rehearsals took place whenever the 18 students had free time throughout the school day or during lunch. While some students took acting roles, others worked as directors and stagehands. Another student videotaped the performance, posting it on the school’s video Website,

Interestingly, while the three public schools sharing the stage with TABC at Rider University on May ” elected to perform scenes from comedies, Master’s group presented scenes from "The Merchant of Venice."

Acknowledging that many people view the play as anti-Semitic, Master said that Shakespeare "goes out of his way to present humane views of Shylock," drawing a complex portrait of the character. "Only he would have written it this way," she said, noting that other writers of the period presented Jews in a totally negative way.

Calling their presentation "Shylock: Victim or Villain," the TABC students offered three scenes from the play, with three different students playing Shylock.

Following the performance, commentators — including professional actors from The Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey — gave the students feedback.

Master noted that every student received an award "for getting into the spirit of the play" and two students, Ely Shestack of Bergenfield and Eitan Westrich of Teaneck, received special mention for their performances.

According to the play’s director, Doniel Sherman of Highland Park, "Ely [as Shylock] won for putting emotion behind his lines, while Eitan [playing Bassanio] won an award for best textual analysis of the part."

"This has really sparked the students’ interest in Shakespeare," said Master. "He’s difficult, but he’s great because he asked universal questions. He doesn’t give answers, but he raises problems" dealing with human nature.

Master noted that in addition to performing, TABC students socialized with acting groups from other schools, joining them in songs between shows and — taking their turn on a public school student’s guitar — teaching Jewish songs.

For their part, participating students found additional reasons to celebrate the experience. "It gave me the opportunity to meet new people from other schools and background who share a common love of Shakespeare," said Ely. "It made me feel like part of a community larger than Teaneck."

Akiva Buckman, from Teaneck, said that he "never thought something hypothesized and written so long ago could become so modernized and relevant to our lives — and enjoyable to perform," while Josh Gildin, also from Teaneck, said that not only was it "an amazing opportunity to both perform and watch others perform some of Shakespeare’s finest plays," but that he was "shocked at the great sense of camaraderie that all of the different schools had. It was especially rewarding after our performance to see all the … secular schools which, at first we were a little intimidated by, clapping fervently for us."

Doniel noted that while the class had read "The Merchant of Veniece" in 10th grade and had appreciated the storyline, they clearly had "missed the subtleties of the language." "Acting out a play requires that each of the actors know exactly what every word in every line means and the emotions behind those words and lines," he said. "It took effort, but after two weeks, each of the actors had memorized his script and was able to say it with feeling that truly demonstrated they understood who their character was, where the character had come from, what the character’s emotions were, and how that character would act in a given setting. The results were great."

He added that the majority of the class has asked Master if they can participate again next year, "so I guess the class had a good time."

"This is very important to me," said Master. "All these years, I have been trying to make my students appreciate Shakespeare; sometimes I have been successful, sometimes I have not. And then here comes "Shakesperience" and does it for me — of course with a huge amount of work on my and the students’ part, but still, a dream come true."

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