Starting young, Gesher students tackle Shakespeare

Nathan Fishman, as Macbeth, duels with Anna Weiss, as Macduff, in Gesher’s fifth-grade production of Macbeth at the Folger Theatre. Photo by Varda Amir-Orrel
Nathan Fishman, as Macbeth, duels with Anna Weiss, as Macduff, in Gesher’s fifth-grade production of Macbeth at the Folger Theatre.
Photo by Varda Amir-Orrel

Murder, mayhem, and witchcraft aren’t everyday fare at a Jewish day school.

But for the fifth-graders at Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax, these were very much part of the year’s curriculum.

They studied, rehearsed and presented an abbreviated version of Macbeth, first for their fellow students in December and then two weeks ago at the opening day of the Emily Jordan Folger Children’s Shakespeare Festival at the Folger Theatre.

The festival, whose motto is, “You’re never too young for Shakespeare,” brings hundreds of elementary school students from Washington-area public and private schools to perform and watch each other perform.

This is the 11th year Gesher has participated in the festival. For the fifth-graders, it was the culmination of a Shakespeare program created in 1996 by fifth-grade teacher Sharon Rosenblatt to introduce her students to the Bard.

“I thought it might be fun to practice his language a little, so I gave each child a few lines to learn,” said Rosenblatt. “At the end, they wanted to do a play.”

Since then, Rosenblatt has been alternating among three Shakespearean plays, Twelfth Night and Midsummer Night’s Dream, in addition to Macbeth. “I chose them because they are the most accessible,” she said.

In the case of Macbeth, the sword fight, ghosts, madness and witches make it “fun to perform.” The only death that takes place onstage in the Gesher production is Macduff’s dramatic killing of Macbeth, which the students see as “the vanquishing of evil,” she said.

But Rosenblatt puts it all in context, even before the students step onstage, over three months of preparation and reading the text.

“We talk about that audiences in Shakespeare’s time demanded all the violence, or they would throw things at the actors. They wanted the plays to be bigger than life. I also teach them that Macbeth is a history as well as a tragedy and that people then believed in the prophecies, though they may seem silly to us.”

But the world itself has provided a context, she continued. “Violence is no surprise to them. It’s a violent world. So the violence is not as unsettling as we’d like it to be.”

There has been no opposition to the selection of Macbeth by parents, who, the teacher said, “loves the program. It has become an institution.

“The biggest problem for many parents is if their children don’t get a big role,” she said, laughing.

Rosenblatt has found during the years that “the kids get the language, and the more you work with them, the more they understand.”

At the Folger festival they have costumes and props, but no scenery—Shakespeare’s plays were performed without it, Rosenblatt said.

One of the requirements for participation is that the youngsters use Shakespeare’s language.

Gesher’s in-school presentation was 40 minutes. For the Folger, they had to cut that in half. “We do highlights of the whole play with all the famous speeches, including Lady Macbeth’s ‘Out, out damn spot,”’ said Rosenblatt.

Every fifth-grader gets a speaking part, even the reluctant ones.

“Of course, we have our hams, with a real taste for theater,” Rosenblatt said.

Nathan Fishman was anything but reluctant. The Macbeth of the production, he just couldn’t wait to be the king, to paraphrase the Disney movie.

But he did find performing onstage at the Folger was “a little bit scary.”

Leah Litman, who portrayed Lady Macbeth complete with red gloves, agreed that having an audience is “different,” something you can’t quite prepare for.  But a play with witches and drama was also “really fun,” she said.

Gesher’s Shakespeare program is part of a larger curriculum.

“Shakespeare is brought to life in the fifth grade when the students study the Renaissance,” said Jodi Hirsch Rein, elementary school director. “Studying the literature and bringing it to life onstage enables understanding of the complex language and allows the students to get inside the characters’ clothing, speak their language and feel what life was like during the period.”

Enthusiasm for the program precedes the fifth grade, Rein said. “Students ask as early as first grade when they’ll be able to do Shakespeare.”

Varda Amir-Orrel’s daughter, Inbar, was the First Witch. She grew up in Israel and said she “loves the fact” that the children are studying his works.

“This is an experience they’ll remember for the rest of their lives,” she said.

The Folger festival is now in its 36th year, noted Ann Stanger, Folger’s manager of visitor education programs.

“When Shakespeare’s language happens naturally, children are not afraid of it,” she said. “It’s like learning a foreign language. Language acquisition comes more easily at a young age.”

Anna Weiss summed up the experience this way: “If you memorize your lines well enough, they rush out of your mouth. You feel as if it’s controlling you.”

Also participating in the festival were Aleph Beth Montessori School in Bethesda and the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville.

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