For years, middle school scholars at the Academy Hill School in Springfield have put on a live Shakespeare production each year. Unfortunately, the stage lights went dark for the past two years due to the pandemic.  

But this year, with help from a Mass Cultural Council Grant, Shakespeare is back at Academy Hill. Shakespeare & Company, a professional theater organization based in Lenox, MA, held a 3-day residency at the school to help students gear up for their rendition of The Tempest. 

Zydalis Bauer joined them for their first dress rehearsal since 2019, where there was no shortage of emotion and excitement among both the students and the staff. 

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: For years, middle school scholars at the Academy Hill School in Springfield have put on a live Shakespeare production annually. Unfortunately, the stage lights went dark for the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But this year, courtesy of a mass cultural council grant Shakespeare and Company, a professional theater organization based in Lenox, Massachusetts, held a three-day residency at the school to help students gear up for their rendition of “The Tempest.”

I joined them for their first dress rehearsal since 2019.

Melissa Earls, Academy Hill School: Right now, we’re in the midst of our Shakespeare unit, which feels like the lights are turned back on. The excitement that’s permeating the whole building is contagious right now.

The students in grades six through eight have been working on their annual Shakespeare unit, which didn’t happen for the last two years. So, it feels like the return to normalcy is just right there and we’re ready to grab it.

Zydalis Bauer: And I mean, the lights are literally going to be on. The students will be the stars of the show.

So, tell me a little bit more about the play and how this opportunity came about.

Melissa Earls: We usually partner with the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Mass Cultural Council, and our cultural partner is Shakespeare and Company, located out in Lenox. And Shakespeare Company is one of the preeminent Shakespearean educational companies in the world. So, they are full of trained actors and teachers who just have this amazing ability to bring Shakespeare into classrooms and other educational settings in ways that excite the students.

So, when we had the opportunity to write a grant through the Mass Cultural Council, we knew we wanted to continue to partner with Shakespeare and Company, and this unit begins with a three day residency.

Shakespeare and Company sends us a handful of their actors and trainers who come to Academy Hill, and they introduce the language of theater and reintroduce the language of Shakespeare to the students. They play games. The students drop the inhibitions. They get comfortable with movement and stage, and then we move into full rehearsals.

Zydalis Bauer: Tell me about why you chose “The Tempest.” And then one thing I thought was really interesting that we were talking about was that this is going to be in Shakespeare language.

So, tell me about that as well.

Melissa Earls: Sure. Well, we have a cycle of plays that we choose from, Shakespeare’s plays that we choose from. And it was on cycle to choose “The Tempest.” We had the right combination of students.

But now that you mention it, I think the inadvertent symbolism of coming out of the storm of the end of the play, where Prospero drops his facade and his magic and goes back home, there’s a symbolism there that almost resonates with the full circle of coming through the pandemic and returning home to to where we began.

We didn’t choose it deliberately. But now that you raise that, there’s something there to reflect on, I think, for sure.

Zydalis Bauer: So, what has been some of the amazing moments you’ve witnessed during the residency and all the practice that the students have gone into?

Melissa Earls: The joy and the kids are together again. After two years of struggling, they are playing and learning in a room, live and in person. You see the…the fear start to break away and… you see themselves shining through.

And that started with the residency and it continued through — through the rehearsals.

Zydalis Bauer: And tell me more about the residency as well. You mentioned that Shakespeare and Company are here for three days.

Melissa Earls: They were, yeah.

Zydalis Bauer: And they’re professionals and they’re with these students and intense.

And so, just to be back in person and the emotion obvious that that comes with that. How did the residency go with the students?

Melissa Earls: Oh, the residency was a blast. You know, Shakespeare and Company is — they’re just an amazing professional theater company and educational resource to have close to our back yard. They’ve been with us for a number of years, on and off.

The way they bring Shakespeare into all educational situations, whether it’s through the school residency programs, they work through the fall festival or their summer camps, they have this ability to get students so excited because they’re doing Shakespeare. They’re not just reading the text, they’re not learning Shakespeare.

They’re living and doing Shakespeare. And no one does that the same as Shakespeare and Company.

Zydalis Bauer: This has really been a hands-on play. The students are involved in literally every aspect of the play.

So, tell me more about that as well.

Melissa Earls: Our students are our costumers. They are our prop handlers. They’ve worked on pieces of the set. We have a student who’s working with sound. So yes, our students take on all the roles of a theatrical production and that allows them to learn those pieces as well.

It’s terrific for students who are maybe not as comfortable coming on the stage and speaking in front of an audience to sit behind the scenes and still play such a critical role.

Ariel: As for the rest of the fleet, they’ve all met again and are upon the Mediterranean, bound, sadly home for Naples. Supposing that they saw the King ship wrecked.

Prospero: Ariel, they charge exactly as performed. But there’s more work.

Ariel: Is there more toil? Let me remember thee with thou hast promise.

Prospero: How now? What is thou canst demand?

Ariel: My liberty I pray be. Remember I’ve done thee worthy service.

Tovah Woldorf, Academy Hill Student: The middle school Shakespeare play is something that we look forward to, like, since you’re in kindergarten. You witness it every single year and it was always just something that we were like, “Oh, when’s the Shakespeare play? It’s coming up.”

Ryan Cooley, Academy Hill Student: I also enjoyed the rehearsals of watching everyone grow into their character and seeing myself become someone who is different from me and who I normally wouldn’t be.

Tovah Woldorf: I think it’s very aspiring to be able to see, like, the older kids perform a production and it seems like, “Wow, that’s something that you’re able to do.”

I’m really going to miss just the experience of rehearsing and being part of just such a great production. And I’ve really enjoyed being able to act and to sing and to play the characters and definitely working alongside the people that you spend a lot of time with.

It gives you a new perspective of them and it gives you just the chance to have so much fun and also to produce like, such a great piece of artwork.