LVR drama teacher Robyn Sheppard has taken students to the annual Good Will Shakespeare Festival (affectionately known as Shakesfest) in Summerland for 13 years.
The students who go to Shakesfest are really excited about it. They can’t get enough of it. This year 55 LVR students applied to go but that’s far beyond the maximum number the festival allows, so 35 went, not just to perform but to take workshops in acting, writing, film and other disciplines.
Why are they so enthusiastic about it? The Star sat down with Grade 11 students Emily Hoff, Jacklyn Banman, and Ingrid Love, Grade 12 student Zorn Rose, and their teacher Robyn Sheppard, to find out.
This is an edited version of our conversation. We started with the question: What is attractive to a teenage actor about Shakespeare?
Emily: It opens people to all this language that no one knows about or talks about. It is kind of confidential. It’s like a secret.
Ingrid: There is something about speaking words that are really rich that you don’t necessarily understand but you have to work to understand. And when you are performing them it encourages you to dig deeper, further into what you are saying and what you are feeling. You watch somebody in a drama class go and take a scene that is difficult as far as language goes, and they have to work harder to see what it is really about, and then suddenly once it is clear, they can really run with it.
Emily: Because it is not just a bunch of mumbled words that don’t make sense. It might seem like that in the beginning, but…
Ingrid: There is a lot of intention. It is written that way for a reason. It is full of clues and full of stuff that is ready for interpretation that you can play with.
Teacher Robyn Sheppard: The words are playful. Kids love to speak his language once they understand it, and even when they don’t, just to get their lips around some of the alliteration and some of the incredible metaphors. It’s fun.
Zorn: When I was in Grade 7, Shakespeare was my first play, and at that point I was semi-interested, and then I went to Shakesfest and then it was definitely my passion. Shakesfest is such an awesome experience and it is so much fun and I miss it so much.
Jacklyn: I was always interested in acting, but what really got me interested was I took a theatre intensive, and he told us Shakespeare is basically the teenager of that time, he was inventing words, he followed his own writing style, and that is what I like to do when I write, I like to do my own thing.
Emily : At Shakesfest there are so many kids and it is all crazy, like on the bus you are so stoked for it, and then you get there and everyone is really pumped, really ecstatic, crazy drama kids who don’t really care about anything, about judgements and stuff. There were some kids this year who did not want to participate fully and I would be just like, ‘go, and go full force,’ and I tried to get my energy up so they could get their energy up.
Zorn: It is high energy.
Jacklyn: It is community.
Zorn: It is like, if you were dead for 362 days a year and for 3 days you weren’t dead. That is kind of how it is.
Ingrid: When you are standing on the stage, you feel everyone’s energy in the audience lifting you up, there is so much positive energy and influence being sent your way, and you feel like you are going to go through the roof because you have so much adrenalin. It gives you so much to work with.
Jacklyn: I find it so exciting when the director has worked so hard and then finally they are like, ‘OK you are on,’ and they go into the audience, and you get this excitement and adrenaline being backstage. It is best feeling in the world being backstage with everybody like that.
Ingrid: I think there are so many talented people at LVR in so many ways and then when I go to the festival and I see there are so many talented people out there (in other places too), and it blows my mind.
We are close as a drama community at LV, we are family, but then you get there and it is like you have an extended family, people you are related to that you have never met.
The piece that the LVR drama class took to the Shakespeare Festival this year was Tom Stoppard’s 15-minute Hamlet, and it was directed not by Robyn Sheppard, but by her student, Ingrid Love, under Robyn’s mentorship. Fifteen-Minute Hamlet is a popular play, but Robyn and Ingrid found an original take on it. Here’s the story of how a teacher gave a student a challenge that turned out to be intensely educational.
Robyn: I am always looking for student directors, one because I love to direct and love to see when students take that initiative and because Ingrid has all the character traits that I think make a strong director: she is willing to try things, she is willing to collaborate, she commands attention, she does her homework, she knows the language, she is very good at communicating when they need direction, she understands acting and intention, and she has been in the course for a while, so it was like, its time.
She did a fantastic job, she just went with it, and it was fun because there would be a problem and we would talk and she would bring ideas to the table and she would problem solve, and then she would go into rehearsal and say, ‘Here this is how I solved it.’
Ingrid: It fun to go in there and tell people to do something, and then change my mind several times. But I think as I got into it I gained a lot of confidence when I started to know where I was going and how I was going to make things happen and when I hit a roadblock I would do it different ways until it started to work.
Robyn: I was talking to her about concept, and about how as a director you need to have a concept that you work from and make decisions based on, and we had a concept discussion, and I threw that out, I said, ‘I want you to put Stoppard’s 15 Minute Hamlet on a chessboard,’ and she looked at me and I looked at her, she tilted her head and I tilted mine, and I said, ‘This is not going to be that easy, do you play chess? Make it a real game and make it work.’ And she was fantastic because she took that concept, and a difficult one, and off she went.
Ingrid: I got the beautiful chess board my grandfather carved and I took it to my room and looked at it for hours and hours, and finally I started writing stuff down and playing a game against myself, and playing and replaying it until finally it settled, and I said, ‘OK that is it, that is how it is going to work.’ But it got complicated toward the end because we were adding people who had never been there before because we needed other people— pawns, bishops…
Robyn: The metaphor is Hamlet having a hard time deciding what his next move is going to be, he deliberates like a chess player, he takes forever to make his next move…
Ingrid: It is interesting for Hamlet though because some of it is so literal, there is a king and a queen and we are trying to get the power of the throne and that is what chess is all about.
There is a scene in which Hamlet is speaking to a grave digger and he holds up Yorick’s skull, and I spent a long time thinking, ‘I don’t want extra props because I don’t want to distract from the vision of this chess board,’ and finally I realized what we could do is place the grave digger right on the edge of the chessboard at the front and where all the bodies are, where all the dead pieces were piling up. She would be sitting right next to that and it made so much sense to just pull up someone who was already dead and hold up their literal head as Yorick’s skull and see a kind of metaphor of a person from the past reappearing as a dead chess piece on the side, and we laughed a lot about that because it does look kind of funny but I think it came through well at the end.
That sort of escalated because we thought, Ophelia is dead and we talk about her being buried and she is lying right there on the stage, let’s bury her in other people’s bodies.
Robyn: It was fun for me to see her discover creative choice in the moment and have the confidence to go with it, and when it did not work, to have the confidence to say, OK we tried that, so lets move on.
Ingrid: I think it was key though that everybody in the cast was willing to follow me and trust that maybe I had no idea what I was doing, but maybe it will work out in the end. They were really respectful of me and gave me their full attention and we worked well together.