"O, what learning is." That quote, from William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," explains the teaching mission of the Folger Shakespeare Library, located in Washington, D.C. Each year, the Folger holds several all-day Shakespeare festivals for middle and high school students to celebrate the Bard's works and engage young people in his language. Westfield Theatre attended the festival for the first time on March 14, where a cast of 25 young Westfield thespians presented "Romeo and Juliet/Slashed," a 30-minute parody of Shakespeare's most famous love story.
Zoe Dillard, Westfield's assistant theatre director and a longtime area theatre teacher, directed "Romeo and Juliet/Slashed," with the help of stage manager Heather McGrath. The show, a new twist on the classic story, gave the Westfield troupe the chance to tell their tale of woe complete with pratfalls, silly props, and rock music. Dillard, who joined the Westfield faculty in September after teaching at several Fairfax County Schools including Cooper Middle School and Madison High School, is a frequent visitor to the Folger, having accompanied students to the festival many times throughout her 20-year career as a theatre educator.
"The Folger Shakespeare Festival is so special because it's a celebration of Shakespeare's work and it's not a competition. The students are so supportive of one and another and they really value the efforts and strengths of each production. The Folger staff makes Shakespeare fun and not stuffy. It's a unique and special day for the kids," Dillard said.
The experience was valuable for the students because they were able to develop a show over many months and then take it on the road, complete with costumes and props. At the festival, eight schools presented their Shakespeare one-act plays. As each school performed, the other schools became their audience. At the end of the day, judges evaluated the plays and gave constructive criticism to the students.
Although the festival is not a competition, the judges distributed many awards, with each school winning a similar number of accolades. Westfield went home with acting prizes for Will Quinn (Romeo), Michelle Polera (Juliet), Chris Ercolano (Mercutio), and Chelsea Stenger (Benvolio), plus a special ensemble award for the entire cast.
For the actors, more important than the awards was the chance to perform in the intimate Elizabethan Theatre with its three-tiered wooden balconies, carved oak columns, and façade that evokes the courtyard of an English Renaissance inn. These types of inns often served as playhouses for traveling groups of players, who performed on a raised platform at one end while spectators gathered in the yard and on the balconies above.
"We had so much fun playing in the Folger's theatre space. It was also great to see other schools and learn some of the finer points of the plays. I learned a lot doing the show and visiting the Folger," said Quinn.