Taking the Bard to school

The Nevada Shakespeare Festival whets the appetites of young people for Willie’s work

Christopher Chen as the mysterious guitar player in black

Christopher Chen as the mysterious guitar player in black

Photo By Adrienne Rice

The Montagues were pumped. The Capulets were more than ready to rumble. Local actors Cameron Crain and Ron Flesher, armed with brightly colored stick-swords, lunged and parried to the jeers and cheers of the rowdy crowd. Just when the fighting reached a fever pitch, a mysterious guitar player in black—aka actor/musician Christopher Chen—stepped into the melee and made peace between the duelers.

And the crowd booed.

It wasn’t that they didn’t like the show. On the contrary, the fourth- and fifth-graders at Stead Elementary School were enthralled from the moment the three actors from Nevada Shakespeare Festival stepped from behind their hastily constructed set (cafeteria tables stood on end). But just like the noisy throngs who catcalled and hooted during The Bard’s heyday, these kids were hungry for action.

Cameron Crain keeps the kids enthralled

Photo By Adrienne Rice

“This crowd was especially boisterous … but the grade school kids, they all love the fighting,” Crain says. “We designed the fight to go in the front of the show, obviously, to get ’em going, and right away, take them by the nose and pull them into the show. And that’s the whole idea, to keep them the whole time.”

From the high-energy opening duel to the rousing sing-along finale, Nevada Shakespeare Festival’s A Bit o’ th’ Bard does just that. Crain and company have toured roughly 30 Washoe County schools in the past month or so, giving kids and teens a taste of Shakespeare’s vast repertoire. In just under an hour, the group performs excerpts from such classics as Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, Hamlet and As You Like It.

But as the folks at Oldsmobile might say, it’s not your father’s Shakespeare. Some of the content is modified to suit the age group, as Shakespeare was not shy about sexual and anatomical references. In some excerpts, the group incorporates modern language and props to get the message across; Romeo and Juliet, for example, is narrated by a hillbilly with a cell phone. But Crain emphasizes that the heart and soul of Shakespeare stay intact.

“We’ll expose them to some of this great language that’s been around for all this time, and then we wrap it up with the hillbilly thing and give it to them so they can hopefully relate to it a little better, and have a lot of fun in the process,” Crain says. “We don’t want to dumb it down. The acting still needs to be grounded in truth.”

Cameron Crain and Ron Flesher have fightin’ words

Photo By Adrienne Rice

In previous years, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland would tour Washoe County schools doing a similar program, Crain says, but for various reasons this year it just didn’t work out. One reason has become all too familiar lately: With educational budgets being slashed left and right, Washoe School District simply couldn’t afford the Ashland troupe. That’s when Nevada Shakespeare Festival and a generous benefactor, the Guild Charitable Foundation, stepped in.

Then Crain recruited Chen and Flesher, drawing upon their particular strengths to create the show. Crain also credits Carol Harraman, the school district’s program coordinator for English and language arts, with helping shape the final product.

“For many Washoe students, the performances by the Nevada Shakespeare Festival will be the only live performances they have ever seen,” Harraman says. “What better way to stimulate dramatic-arts participation than impressing these young people with live Shakespeare? … Some teachers are even saying that they prefer the Nevada actors to the Ashland actors, as they are more approachable and involve the students more extensively.”

And the kids aren’t the only ones excited about A Bit o’ th’ Bard. Nevada Shakespeare Festival now plans to keep the show as its flagship production, altering it from year to year to keep it fresh and touring with it as much as possible.

My kingdom for a volunteer!

Photo By Adrienne Rice

“The set changes completely every time, so that we could do this show right there at the car wash if we wanted to,” Crain says. “And I love that, taking it to the people.”

Now that their school district tour is coming to an end, Nevada Shakespeare Festival is ready to take A Bit o’ th’ Bard out of the schools and into the general public. The company will start with three performances this weekend at Nevada Performing Arts in Sparks in honor of Shakespeare’s birthday (estimated by most scholars to be April 23), and they’ll follow up with two performances May 4-5 at The Old Playhouse in Gardnerville.

Four more actors will join the trio on stage, and many elements will be fleshed out and others added on. Crain says the public performances will have darker elements than the school district tour, but that the show is still very much geared toward families.

And it may sound surprising from the theater company that brought northern Nevada Macbeth in Black Leather (a “biker” version of the bloody tale), but Flesher says the show is helping to push the theater company’s boundaries ever further.

“It’s a good … opportunity for us to expand as a company and get ourselves out there artistically," Flesher says. "And maybe it will help change a couple people’s ideas about how they view theater."