Young aspiring actors gather together at the Francis Cope House, located at One Awbury Road, bringing the words of Shakespeare to life. Suddenly, a room that only housed a fireplace and an oriental rug, transforms into a stage. For 10 weeks, these young teens have a place to be or not to be, where they ask friends, Romans and countrymen to lend their ears, and look for Romeo, O Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo.
The Quintessence Theatre Group, which is dedicated to the performance and adaptation of epic works of classic literature and drama for the contemporary stage, hosts a Quintessence Shakespeare Youth Workshop under the direction of Alexander Harvey.
When Harvey was 8, he saw A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a park underneath this huge tree by the seaside in Manchester, Mass. It was almost like Harvey drank the potion that Puck had created because suddenly he was in love. “I think it was something about how mischievous [Puck] was, and the magical powers he had. To an eight-year-old, that’s the coolest thing ever,” Harvey said.
And then Shakespeare became his life. He worked with the Rebel Shakespeare Company in Massachusetts when he was growing up, and studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, Syracuse University and even The Globe.
When he was 11, he took a trip to England with his local Shakespeare company. They toured The Globe, going backstage, talking to the actors and even had the opportunity to stand on stage. “I thought, ‘I hope this isn’t the last time I am on this stage.’ And it wasn’t. So it was a very big thing for 11-year-old me to come back as a 21-year-old,” Harvey said.
Since Harvey fell in love with Shakespeare at such a young age, it only makes sense that he should lead the next generation of fans. The workshop runs for ten weeks and this eager group of students have been waking up early every Saturday to learn the complex world of William Shakespeare.
After a series of stretches, Harvey handed each student a neon yellow tennis ball. The students looked at each other with a little confusion as Harvey explained how this tennis ball would help them with the delivery of their monologues. He told the students that by having them toss the ball up and down, they are now externalizing something, not focusing on themselves and allowing them to stop worrying about whether they are doing a good job or not.
“I try to teach Shakespeare in the most physical way possible, getting it into your body, resisting it. You need to have your mind sharp as a tack, of course, and you have to be able to think these huge eight line thoughts before you say them. But the rhythm is so muscular,” Harvey said.
But do these young teenagers actually understand the complicated world of Shakespeare, where words seem to marinate together only to turn into a ball of gibberish?
“I think when you are younger, you haven’t been told that Shakespeare is difficult yet. You are willing to embrace it in a really playful way. You just get thrown into it and don’t worry thinking, ‘Oh God, Shakespeare is so difficult. Oh my God, I don’t understand everything that is being said.’ But a lot of time the kids hold on to it right away, just the sound of it. They just love it,” Harvey said.
And it’s true. Joe Newmann, 14, worked with Quintessence during a performance of Henry V and now finds himself as a student in the Youth Shakespeare Workshop. Thanks to the class, he is really able to hold on to the complicated language. “I am beginning to understand it more. Thanks to this class, more things are being revealed to me. I am not a master, or anything, but it has helped me pick apart words and pick apart more specific details in the class. I probably would not have been able to do if I had just been reading it,” Newmann said.
Ellianna McLaughlin, 14, commented on the open space that Harvey allows his students to perform in. At the beginning of each class, he has every student say something good about his or her day and something bad. And by doing this, he creates an environment where students feel free to loosen up. “You don’t feel embarrassed. I took other acting classes but with Alex it’s different. In other acting classes they tell you this is how it’s supposed to be done, but he says, ‘Well what’s your interpretation of what we are doing now,’ he gives you a chance,” McLaughlin said.
Really, that’s all that Harvey hopes to do, while teaching them something that he said he loves to do. By the end of the workshop, there will be no flashy production. The performance space will still just contain a fireplace and an oriental rug, but with their parents and friends in the audience, this will be their stage.
“When the time comes when their parents get to see what they have done, that alone will make for a really exciting show for everyone. They get to say, ‘This is what I did.’ And they love what they’ve done and they really just get to go. It’s all theirs. It’s not me, it’s not my directing of them, it’s theirs. That’s what really gives me the most pleasure, helping them unlock themselves,” Harvey said.