America has had a love affair with William Shakespeare for centuries. The first known performance of Shakespeare in the colonies dates back to 1750, and by the time of the American Revolution in 1776 his plays had been performed hundreds of times. In his 1835 work “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “There is hardly a pioneer's hut that does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare.” Today, it takes just a few keystrokes to discover dozens of film and video adaptations featuring leading artists.
For many, the love affair with Shakespeare began in the classroom, an appreciation fostered by teachers who are committed to bringing the 400-year-old words and stories to life for the next generation. Yet, despite Shakespeare’s deep roots in this country, many teachers are uncomfortable teaching the Bard’s works, struggling with the language and context of the writing. It was a recognition of this need that prompted David Montee, an instructor of theatre at Interlochen Center for the Arts, to undertake one of the most ambitious projects of his long career: creating a resource for teachers to help them share this artistic legacy with their students.
Montee directed his first Shakespeare play in 1990, two years after his arrival at Interlochen. In the 24 years since that production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” he has directed eighteen more Shakespeare plays at Interlochen—no repeats—and introduced hundreds of young actors to the works of the Bard, sending many on to professional acting careers and gaining national recognition for his teaching along the way. His new book “Translating Shakespeare: A Guidebook for Young Actors” is the culmination of his decades-long effort.
Montee knew that he wanted to write a book about teaching Shakespeare, but it wasn’t until he stepped down from his 21-year tenure as director of theatre arts in 2011 that he was able to devote the time needed to work on it. Based on the materials he had been using in the classroom for years, the book allowed him to expand beyond the limits of a lecture and provide more depth. His goal for young actors is simple: help them learn to love the language of Shakespeare.
“I want to help them learn to appreciate the English language, how things sound, the rhythm—Shakespeare was a master at that,” Montee said. In the classroom and in his book, he gives them the tools to analyze the story and context. Once that happens, the language, perhaps intimidating at first, comes alive.
Peggy O’Brien, director of education for the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., also points to the language as the primary way that students connect with Shakespeare. “Those words are so powerful. The language is visceral, muscular—not complicated,” O’Brien said. “When kids connect to that, it really strikes them.”
“Shakespeare wasn’t writing literature,” explained O’Brien. “He didn’t write his plays to be read while seated: he wrote them to be acted.” However, Shakespeare isn’t just for actors, so while teachers encourage students to get out of their chairs in order to connect with the language, the focus for most is on the process, not performance.
It’s not just the actors studying Shakespeare at Interlochen, either. Since the early 1980s, Shakespeare has been offered as a one-semester English elective for juniors and seniors at Interlochen Arts Academy, initially taught by Howard Hintze until his retirement in 2004 and carried on now by Maurine Slaughter. Hintze recalled that he was always surprised by the number of students who packed his room for a semester of Shakespeare, often asking them on the first day, “You do know what you’ve signed up for, right? A semester of iambic pentameter?” But he knew what drew them to the course: Interlochen students in all disciplines understand the influence of Shakespeare on all the arts.
Hintze, Montee, and O’Brien all agree that the works of Shakespeare have proven to have remarkable staying power. Young actors are tackling major roles on stage, like Benedict Cumberbatch’s “Hamlet” scheduled run in London next year, sold out a year in advance. Director Joss Whedon, best known for “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and other popular television shows, directed an innovative black and white film of “Much Ado About Nothing” in 2012. And technology like Netflix and YouTube offer multiple versions of the same scene or play, allowing students to discuss the different choices actors and directors make and learn that Shakespeare isn’t static.
Thanks to teachers like David Montee, Maurine Slaughter, and others across the country, our love affair with the Bard looks like it will stay strong for centuries to come.