Last Friday morning’s unexpected snowfall arrived just in time to add an appropriate backdrop to the performance of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale by fifth grade students at Johnson Park Elementary School.
The performance was the culmination of a six-week long intensive acting program led by former Broadway actress and McCarter Theatre teaching artist, Rebecca Simon. It was produced in collaboration with a McCarter residency program.
Fifth graders from classes taught by Sharon Cox, Diane Lefenfeld, Jennifer Park, Dan Van Hise, and Emily Vasille worked together on the project, which brings together all of the fifth grade students.
Over the last seven year’s, Johnson Park fifth graders have taken on Shakespeare plays including Hamlet, Macbeth, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The script was adapted especially for children to perform.
“The earlier our students are introduced to this material the better,” said teacher Ms. Lefenfeld, who’s been involved since the program began. “We start in the summer, choosing the play in conjunction with McCarter theatre and the production provides lots of educational opportunities for our students.”
In preparation, students read Charles Lamb’s abridged version of Shakespeare’s play. They attended a Broadway show and will be treated to a backstage tour when McCarter Theatre stages A Winter’s Tale from April 2 to April 21.
In addition, the students formed backstage guilds to support the production. The Gallery Guild produced a playbill and all the art projects associated with the play. The Publication Guild put out a newspaper, posters, and invitations. The Costume Guild made sure that every member of the cast had a costume, many of which came courtesy of McCarter Theatre. Students designed coats of arms expressing hobbies and interests and wrote diaries from the points of view of the play’s characters.
The students were surprised when School Principal Robert Ginsberg took to the stage in the guise of a bear during the performance.
“The McCarter acting program at Johnson Park inspired this young group of actors,” said Dr. Ginsberg. “They have studied the craft of acting, learned about making ‘tableaux’, learned how to move across a stage and use an actor’s vocabulary of downstage-left, downstage-right, upstage-left, and upstage-right. They learned how to project their voices, and how to focus.”
The fifth graders gave two performances, one in the morning with the rest of the school as audience, and one in the evening for parents and the public.
A Winter’s Tale has been described as one of The Bard’s most elegant and haunting plays, a “magical classic celebrating redemption, reconciliation, and the mending of broken hearts.”
This is Shakespeare integrated into the elementary school curriculum, said Ms. Lefenfeld. “Students learn social skills of cooperation, delegation, helping one another, teamwork and, of course, acting skills too.”