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April 4, 2012

Shaking up Shakespeare: Jeffersonville elementary students learn playwright’s work

JEFFERSONVILLE — After the show, audience members talked a little about romance amidst feuding and the price two lovers were willing to pay to spend eternity together.

But these onlookers haven’t even started middle school yet.

Kentucky Shakespeare put on a version of “Romeo and Juliet” in which they explained some of the meaning of the language and themes of the play to a group of third- through fifth-graders at Riverside Elementary School. Students came from other schools in Greater Clark County Schools’ Gifted and Talented program.

Ryan Watson, one of the actors, said the show helped familiarize children with William Shakespeare’s work while helping them understand the subject matter.

“One thing we want to do as we bring down the more weighty subjects is to get them to focus on Shakespeare,” Watson said. “Using the vehicle of a play within a play, we’re able to take off the mask for a minute and explain that.”

Caitlyn Jennings, a fifth-grader at Riverside, said she thought the actors did a good job of conveying the play’s ideas to the audience.

“I got what the story was mainly about, how two families were fighting and the son and daughter in them fell in love,” Jennings said.

April Flaten, a parent volunteer for the day, said her son, Jared, was able to see the play. She said she knew her husband hadn’t read “Romeo and Juliet” until he got into college and she was glad her son was able to see it much earlier on.

“I think the more exposure you have, the better you’re going to be able to understand it,” Flaten said.

But outside of being able to enjoy the show and learn about it early on, Susan Stewart, advanced program coordinator, said getting used to Shakespeare early on had benefits for students that were more far-reaching.

“All people appreciate Shakespeare at some level,” Stewart said. “For our kids, we’re trying to raise that academic bar. We know kids at this age who get exposure to this kind of literature do better on the SAT.”

Stewart said students had been learning about comedies, tragedies and themes in plays for about four weeks.

But Watson said the play also helps students relate to it by using cues students would recognize, rather than relying strictly on the text from Shakespeare’s plays.

“We peppered the play with contemporary references that can break down the monotony, like Justin Bieber and the use of cell phones,” Watson said.

Stewart said with Shakespeare references used in everyday conversation, getting the ability to analyze and compare modern books to Shakespeare’s work would be helpful as they got older.

“The confidence and self esteem they can get from this going into middle or high school with that understanding of this literature is great,” Stewart said. “They can sort of say, ‘that’s no big deal. I saw that in the third grade.’”

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Savannah Hatton, junior, and Clay Gulley, senior, act out a scene as Mr. and Mrs. Bennett in Floyd Central High School's production of "Pride and Prejudice." The show opens Friday night.

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