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Children Act Out Shakespeare

The play's the thing for these young actors.

Does a 45 minute production of Romeo and Juliet seem like it is moving quickly? Not if you have rehearsed the whole thing in three minutes. This is what the actors in Stageplay, a group of Mount Vernon children who attend drama camps and classes taught by Heather Sanderson, did to rehearse for their big stage debut in the Shakespeare on the Potomac Festival at Carl Sandburg Middle School.

Did the quick run-through relax the cast of fourth- through seventh-graders?

“It made us tired anyway,” said Nell Mckeowan.

“But it made me hyper,” added Julia O’Connor.

Whether or not the cast was sleep-walking or hyped-up, the technique must have worked. Although the Stageplayers were competing with older Middle Schoolers, they still won awards for Best Ensemble, Best Actor (Casey Hagan/Romeo), Best Character Actor (Emily Woods/The Nurse), and several more.

Lady Catherine Manning, the wife of the British Ambassador, was one audience member who was enthusiastic about the Stageplay production. “Heather Sanderson has done magnificent work in introducing children to Shakespeare. She cuts through the difficulty of the language to the essential drama which the students understand.”

On Saturday, March 18, the students returned for an encore performance to the cozier confines of Saint Aidan’s Episcopal Church, where Heather Sanderson teaches her drama classes and holds her yearly mid-summer drama camp. During the 45 minute performance the actors seemed to be moving continuously on and off stage, often changing costume and character, without ever having a moment to sit down.

THE CAST MEMBERS were eager to voice their enthusiasm for all the effort it had taken to stage their production of “Romeo and Juliet.” They had been rehearsing this play since January. They attend Waynewood Elementary, Carl Sandburg Middle School, Stratford Landing Elementary, Fort Hunt Elementary, Alexandria Country Day, and Browne Academy. They had all met through Sanderson’s classes.

“I did one of her first sessions and got addicted,” said Emily Woods.

Nell McKeowan, who has spent five years with “Ms. Heather” revealed how she learns the script. “A really good trick to learn lines is to look at them right before you go to sleep.”

“And first thing when you get up!” added Claire Malkie and Natalie Hernandez at the same moment.

Casey Hagan, who played Romeo, talked about the pressure of playing in the Carl Sandburg auditorium. “Most of us were performing in front of all our classmates. It was nerve-wracking at the beginning, but you get in the mood and soon you’re in Verona.”

But offstage, when the actors were not caught up in the performance, they have other methods for dealing with tension. “We just squeeze each other’s hand,” said Morgan Peasley.

Allison Handy, who played Lord Capulet, described the eternal challenge of the actor. “It was hard because I had to keep changing emotions all the time.”

Emily Woods, who stole the show with her portrayal of the nurse, explained how Sanderson helped them get into character. “Before we’d practice our play we would do improv to understand the characters better.” These improvs included a talk show in which Juliet discusses her relationship with her mother, a therapy show in which some characters confront their problems with violence, and an imaginative explanation of what started the Montague-Capulet feud. The final answer involved two year olds and a feather duster.

After the performance, many parents took time to thank Sanderson for the work she was doing. One father held the hand of his six year old son, who he said had insisted that they come to the show after attending one of Sanderson’s classes.

Sanderson was visibly moved, but was quick to give all the credit to the bard. “That’s how it is. That’s the power of Shakespeare,” she said.