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Bused to the Bard : Students Come Face to Face With Shakespeare in Topanga Canyon

May 28, 1987|AURORA MACKEY | Mackey is a North Hollywood free-lance writer.

Early one morning last week, scores of yellow buses rumbled down Topanga Canyon, finally pulling off to the side of the road and kicking up dust beside a small, hand-painted sign.

The children inside pressed their faces against the smudged glass, trying to make out the two figures approaching. A man wore strange clothes and a familiar-looking beard. A woman had a distinctively regal air.

"All the world's a stage," the man said in a British accent.

William Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth greet children this way regularly during the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum's "School Days" program, an annual six-week event designed to interest Southern California students in theater.

Each year more than 5,000 students from public and private schools participate in the one-day field trip to the open-air amphitheater nestled between the oaks and rugged rocks of Topanga Canyon.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 4, 1987 Valley Edition View Part 5 Page 15 Column 4 No Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
In a story that ran May 28 about the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, a paragraph was deleted identifying the theater's artistic director, Ellen Geer. She is the daughter of actor of Will Geer, who founded the theater as an actors' workshop in the '50s.

Description of Times

"I talk to them about Elizabethan lives and times, what it was to live under a total monarchy, and all with this very huge ego," said actress Katherine James of her queenly role. "A lot of these kids have never stood up close to actors before, and so for many of them it's their first real exposure to theater."

But the 275 students who arrive each day do a lot more than talk with the Bard himself or listen to England's one-time leading lady belittle such things as modern-day sports that involve "balls in the shape of a foot."

After stepping off the bus, each student is given a random number and assigned to designated workshop areas spread over the theatricum's five acres. There, the students are introduced to such theatrical fare as voice projection, stage fighting, improvisation, mime, poetry and Baroque dance.

Some students are assigned to rehearse with the theater's professional actors in preparation for roles they will play later in the afternoon. Most students already are familiar with the play--in this case Shakespeare's "The Tempest."

Warm-Up Program

"The kids don't just show up here without having had any prior exposure to the play," said educational director Irene Silbert, who coordinates attendance.

In the months before their arrival, she said, each school receives a "resource packet" designed to help teachers incorporate Shakespeare into the curriculum.

Actors and actresses then visit classes at each school. The play's story is explained, workshops are suggested to teachers, and passages of the play are read to help students better understand the language.

Now it was time for the real thing.

The students who would be performing in the afternoon play once again went over their cues.

"When do you come onto the stage?" one actress asked the 15 eighth-graders from Portola, Sepulveda and Toll junior high schools.

"After the waves!" shouted the group, who would be appearing as the spirit Ariel's sprites.

"Remember that there will be a lot going on and a lot of actors doing a lot of crazy things," the actress reminded them. "What is your cue to turn into rocks?"

"When the other sprites leave," the students answered correctly.

After lunch, all but 15 of the 275 students sat on the steps of the amphitheater, watching an edited version of Shakespeare's play about love, revenge and forgiveness. (The play, which would normally last three hours, was cut to a 1 1/2 hours). All eyes went to their peers as the 15 students went on stage on cue, followed the action correctly and exited without tripping or stumbling.

At the end of the play, the sprites were given thunderous applause.

Geer estimated that the daily cost of the program, which employs more than 30 actors and actresses, is more than $4,000. A small percentage of that cost, she said, is offset by the school enrollment fee of $9 a child. The rest is raised through corporate, foundation and private sponsorship.

Spin-Off Advantages

According to Silbert, the benefits of this kind of learning are many. "Theater games help communication skills, improvisation promotes creative thinking and reading the material helps develop language skills," she said.

"And then there's the other aspect to consider. Teen-agers have so many raging hormones, and theater arts may just give them a very needed creative outlet."

"Basically, what it comes down to is this," said Geer. "Here is 400-year-old literature that still lives. It still has the capacity to excite these kids."

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