If you don’t know Heather Sanderson, perhaps you know “The Tea Lady,” the moniker she adopts for the programming she hosts each weekday on Maryland Public Television, which can be seen in Mount Vernon on channel 22. Sanderson herself is more enamored of an identity she shares with a much smaller audience. “Miss Heather” has been running dramatic arts classes and camps for children ages three through 15 out of St. Aidan’s Church for the last five years.
Sanderson named these theatrical activities with the youth of Mount Vernon “Stageplay.” Last week, a group of “Stageplayers,” most of whom were between nine and twelve years old, performed a condensed version of Romeo and Juliet at the Shakespeare on the Potomac Festival hosted by Carl Sandburg Middle School (see article on p. 48).
Sanderson attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, England. She began her U.S. acting career in the San Francisco Bay Area, but quit professional acting after giving birth to her first child. She is married and has two children.
What is it about Shakespeare that gets children so excited?
“The stories are so incredibly exciting. A lot of them are fairy tale based. Romeo and Juliet is taken from fairy tale and fable. Shakespeare had an incredible understanding of people’s psyches. He seemed to understand every person and every situation that was around. Recently another theory that seems to be coming to me is how Shakespeare stories [such as “The Merchant of Venice” and “Henry V”] deal with varying aspects of Christianity. Shakespeare is full of moral lessons. Is this filling a void that wasn’t getting filled otherwise? Is there something [the children] are really craving but they don’t realize they are craving yet?
“Shakespeare is so much more complex than just the good, the bad, and the ugly. There’s always more than one side. There’s always a dilemma. It stretches their intellectual abilities. I need to ask the children about it…”
But plenty of children are exposed to Shakespeare in school and never find that excitement…
“I hated it. We had to study it from the age of eleven. I hated it until I performed it. It wasn’t meant to be read. That’s why he never wrote. Performance is the key. And you try to make it relevant to the students’ own lives. There are so many fun things you can do before you even pick up a copy of the play. Adults are intimidated by Shakespeare and that’s why they find it so amazing when their children aren’t. That’s why they don’t push it down their children’s throats, and then I came around and I did.”
How did you get started with Stageplay?
“I really did it for my friends’ children and for my own daughter. I started out with these kids five summers ago and all I taught them was 4 lines from the “all the world’s a stage” speech. I was very much opposed to doing plays. I felt the children were too stressed, there was too much for them, and the children should just play! I just wanted this little haven for them on a Monday afternoon and they would come and play.
St. Aidan's Church deserves a lot of the credit for what I am doing with the children. They opened up their doors to me 5 summers ago. It is a very special place.
How do you approach the drama training you do with Stageplay?
“I don’t like to call it acting. You can’t take an 8 year old or a 6 year old and teach them how to act. How would you say it when you do improvs and games and theatre acting sports..? They’ve got to be comfortable in their bodies first. You can teach them acting techniques through play. I call it play, actually. In Shakespeare the actors were called players.”
How do you choose your Stageplayers?
“I do not take students into my classes based on acting abilities. I take students who I feel have a passion and desire for Shakespeare and drama, or who may be struggling in other areas of their lives, academically or privately and who I think being part of a "troupe" will be a rewarding experience. For a child who has never been recognized for academic achievement, or for a child with a learning disability, to work on a weekly basis with gifted and talented students, and for all the children to get along as peers, that can have a profound effect on both groups. For the poor academic achievers, being able to stand up and be applauded for their acting efforts may be the only public recognition they will receive in their school years. That is the power of theatre. It is a great equalizer.
I also offer full scholarships for those students who I know would not be able to afford my classes and camps into my classes and camps. These scholarships are given at my discretion.
The only individual who does not get treated "fairly" in my classes is my wonderful daughter Eliza. Although she is the reason I am doing what I am doing, I just cannot cast her in the roles she desires, because it just would not be fair. Reverse nepotism! Her understanding of this makes her a very special person.
How do you prepare for your shows?
“We don’t spend a lot of time on the production. We spend a lot of time with the characters and the text. They audition each other. I don’t cast them. I want them as a team. I need them all to feel really comfortable with who’s doing what part. So we talk about the casting process and then they cast each other.
“Don’t forget I’m also a mum… Our dinnertimes are sacred.