In school, reading Shakespeare is classified as some form of torture. Even I, a bona fide Shakespeare fan girl and theater geek, could barely tolerate listening to yet another classmate stumble through line after line of iambic pentameter. Their monotone voice and lack of inflection only proved the fact that they had no idea what they were reading. (I’d rather not lend you my ears, thanks so much.) What was worse than their poor cold reading skills was listening to their complaints, as if Shakespeare was boring. Despite the dread I felt in hearing my fellow students butcher the greatest poetry ever written, I couldn’t comprehend how they didn’t appreciate the genuine brilliance of what they were studying.
I have a theory that no one actually dislikes Shakespeare. They may protest and call it dull, confusing, or tedious, but I believe they just haven’t been exposed to his works in a way that related to them and enabled them to gain a true understanding. That’s where Orlando Shakespeare Theater comes in. Orlando Shakes has a variety of summer camps targeted at different age groups, which allow students to take on the Bard’s great plays in a whole new way. Last summer, I got the chance to participate in one of their production camps, Shakespeare with Heart. Performing as Portia in The Merchant of Venice, I worked on this production alongside students with and without special needs.
It was so refreshing to get the opportunity to work with people who were completely committed to the task before them. All of us became consumed by our roles and with performing them to the absolute best of our ability. In today’s society, that level of commitment and focus is rare; it’s a trait I value greatly in others. Personally, I have two settings: either I can’t focus, or I can’t not focus. When I’m really into something, it’s seriously hard for me to give attention to anything else. In other situations, my obsessive tendencies get me labeled as “intense” (for those who wish to put it nicely), and I quickly become frustrated when others fail to take tasks as seriously as I do. But at camp, everyone was as eager to dedicate their time, attention, and hard work to the program. For once, I wasn’t the only person in the room excited about Shakespeare! Everyone was thrilled for the journey we were about to take together. The program is designed so that each student is constantly challenged. No one is coasting by, and it’s not easy on anyone, but the result is that each individual proves they are capable of more than even they themselves believed.
In the past, I’ve worked with special needs students in a ballet program called dance therapy. As rewarding as that volunteer experience was, it was definitely structured so I was a “helper” working as a mentor and guide to a single student. Shakespeare with Heart is different: instead of helping the special needs student achieve her goals, I worked side by side with the entire cast towards the common goal of putting on the best show possible. As my fellow actors and peers, all the students involved contributed to my knowledge and growth as a performer and a person.
The friends I made there were not just for the moment. In this two week program, I bonded with my cast mates, creating a unique community founded on our shared experience. To improve at anything, it is necessary to put yourself out there. When you are surrounded by people who are all making themselves as vulnerable as you, and taking the emotional risks that are necessary to develop, you can’t help but feel close to them. It is so magical that you can achieve that level of openness with a large group of people so quickly. No one was afraid of potential failure, because everyone was rooting for each other’s success. A connection this close is bound to last. I still Facebook stalk my “little sister” (who played the role of Balthasara) to see what new adventures life has in store for her. Next week, I’m going to see my “cousin” (“Nerissa”) perform in her high school’s production of Measure for Measure. These beautiful young people are more than cast mates, more than friends, they are my family. I can only thank them for being a part of my life.
Orlando Shakes summer camps are enriching, educational, and just all around fun. As young people, it’s hard to find a place where it is safe to put your heart on the line by putting your full effort in to something. There are but few social groups that you can rely on to be supportive as you take on the burden of challenging yourself to be better. The summer camp communities at Orlando Shakespeare Theater provide that space. Together we learn about theater, Shakespeare, and ourselves.
Lexie Hoag is currently a Marketing and Public Relations Intern at Orlando Shakespeare Theater, as well as a student at Valencia College. At the end of the semester she will complete her AA and then plans to pursue her bachelor’s degree in Public Relations. She can often be found rereading books, snuggling her puppy, and haunting local theaters.