LENOX -- For many high schoolers, Shakespeare can be a daunting (and somewhat boring) task. Perhaps part of that is sitting in a classroom and simply reading the material. For some high schoolers in the Berkshires, however, Shakespeare comes alive on stage this weekend at Shakespeare and Company’s Fall Festival of Shakespeare at the Tina Packer Playhouse in Lenox.
"There’s an immense difference," Mount Everett High School junior Jake Smerechniak said of performing versus reading. "Not only is it hands on, but you are able to feel the words come to life."
The nationally celebrated program places Shakespeare and Co. Education Artists in 10 local schools, where they lead students on a nine-week exploration of how Shakespeare’s plays relate to their own lives. The students perform their selections at their respective schools before bringing the shows to Shakespeare and Co. for the three-day festival.
"The whole festival, in sneaky but wonderful ways, teaches you how to be a better person," Mount Everett senior Victoria Aldam said. "Rather than just sitting in the classroom and learning these life lessons, you are acting them out."
Led by Shakespeare and Co. veterans Carmen-Maria Mandley and Caitlin Kraft, the fall festival seeks to engage students in vibrant, playful and poignant theatrical experiences, built on the transformative power of Shakespeare’s words.
"Above all elsem, it teaches them all to work together," Kraft said. "How to be a responsible person - being responsible for your actions and taking care of each other and be an adult. One part isn’t bigger than the whole is a wonderful lesson. And Shakespeare is meant to be heard. There’s a certain disconnect if you are just looking at the pages."
And Shakespeare can be very identifiable for students.
"It’s all about the words," Mandley said. "Adolescence is a time where everything is heightened; everything is life and death, just like Shakespeare. His works are meant to be played."
The students of Mount Everett will be performing "Love’s Labor’s Lost," an earlier comedy, but one suited to the performers.
"We have a couple days of auditions at the start," Kraft said, "and we had a couple plays in mind. Carmen directed there last year so she knew the kids, and then we just see the kids and see them in the space and on stage. Then in the 45 minute car ride, which is great for meetings, we narrowed it down to a comedy and we had about three or four plays on our short list before we went into the second day of audition. Then on the car ride back, we had narrowed it down even more."
The fall festival is all about coming together, according to Shakespeare and Co.’s Elizabeth Aspenlieder. She added that the festival, now in its 24th year, started as a way to bring the high schools of Lenox and Lee together and has grown ever since.
And the lessons of togetherness are not lost on the students.
"You learn how to accept everyone’s strong suits," Smerechniak said, "and really how to portray it on stage. And to really accept people for who they are and that’s what makes it such a great environment."
The festival is celebration rather than a competition, and students are encouraged to delve into Shakespeare’s works, unpacking the language and savoring the humor.
"These kids are so smart and have a really strong grasp of the language," Kraft said. "’Love’s Labor’s Lost’ is a comedy, but it’s a comedy of words. It’s incredibally witty and the language is so dense that we thought it would be a great challenge. [Director of Education] Kevin Coleman, at the start of director training, said we want to raise everybody’s bar - bars at the school, each student’s individual bar and our own bar - so we though this would be really good choice."
The festival runs Nov. 15 to 18. Tickets are $12 for adults and $6 for students. A festival pass, which includes all 10 plays, is $60 for adults and $30 for students. For tickets and more information: 413-637-3353, Shakespeare.org.
If you go:
Thursday November 15
6:30 p.m. - "Twelfth Night" Taconic Hills High School
8:30 p.m. - "The Winter’s Tale" Lenox Memorial High School
Friday, November 16
6:30 p.m. - "Henry IV, pt. I" Taconic High School
8:30 p.m. - "Henry V" Lee High School
Saturday, November 17
1:30 p.m. - "Julius Caesar" Monument Mountain Regional H.S.
3:30 p.m. - "Love’s Labor’s Lost" Mount Everett Regional H.S.
6:15 p.m. - "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" Mt. Greylock H.S.
8:30 p.m. - "The Tempest" Springfield Central High School
Sunday, November 18
1:30 p.m. - "As You Like It" Chatham High School
3.30 p.m. - "Pericles, Prince of Tyre" North Andover High School