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At Fall Festival of Shakespeare, Students Are Both Audience and Stars

An enthusiastic audience cheers on the performers during the 2011 Fall Festival of Shakespeare.

An enthusiastic audience cheers on the performers during the 2011 Fall Festival of Shakespeare.

Owen Carey/Courtesy Portland Playhouse

This weekend, the Winningstad Theatre in downtown Portland will be full of teenagers. They’ll be cheering, laughing, “oohing,” “ahhing” and screaming at the stage.

What will inspire such youthful exuberance?


For two days, students from six area schools will be both audience and performers in the fourth annual Fall Festival of Shakespeare, a Bard marathon featuring 75-minute versions of six plays, from Romeo and Juliet to the Taming of the Shrew.

“Shakespeare is perfect for teenagers,” says Nikki Weaver, education director at Portland Playhouse, the organizer of the event. “They can relate to the passion, the high stakes and the drama of the stories. After all, high school is a lot like an Elizabethan tragedy,” she adds.

Lincoln High School production of "King Lear" during the Fall Festival of Shakespeare

Lincoln High School production of “King Lear” during the Fall Festival of Shakespeare

Christina Riccetti/Courtesy Portland Playhouse

The Festival is part of a 10-week residency program Portland Playhouse conducts in collaboration with the participating schools. Two-person teams of local actors and directors lead students through a “language-based” exploration of the plays, culminating in a live performance in front of fellow student performers and the general public.

Based on a program developed by Kevin Coleman at Shakespeare and Company in Massachusetts, the workshops use theater games and acting exercises to move beyond the intimidations of Shakespeare’s text and get right to the story. “We don’t ever do a text reading of the play with the students,” says Weaver. “We immediately get them on their feet, moving through space and experiencing the story through their bodies.”

The rehearsals start with the “story of the play.” The directors run through the plot with the students, playacting the scenes without the script to give them a sense of the characters and dramatic situations. Then students learn their parts through a process called “feeding in,” which is a little like a human teleprompter. Scenes are rehearsed with directors reading the lines and the students reciting them. Instead of blocking out their movements and actions beforehand, students react instinctively. By approaching the rehearsal process this way, says Weaver, students make an immediate connection to the text and the story that goes beyond memorization.

Jefferson High School production of "Julius Caesar" at the Fall Festival of Shakespeare

Jefferson High School production of “Julius Caesar” at the Fall Festival of Shakespeare

Christina Riccetti/Courtesy Portland Playhouse

It all builds to a weekend of theater with an atmosphere probably more like the original Globe Theatre than your typical high school performance. “I think the students’ high energy and excitement at the Festival comes from their understanding of the text. So when they are in the audience, they’re able to get so involved in the drama of the story,” says Weaver.

Go See It!

Fall Festival of Shakespeare

  • Winningstad Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, Portland

Sunday, November 4

  • 12:00 p.m. - De La Salle High School - The Taming of the Shrew
  • 1:30 p.m. - Fort Vancouver High School – Romeo and Juliet
  • 5 p.m. - Trillium High School – The Tempest
  • 6:30pm - Ridgefield High School - A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Sunday, November 4

  •     2 p.m. - King High School – Romeo and Juliet
  •     3:30 p.m. – Franklin High School - As You Like It
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