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Shakespeare on the Sound pits The Bard vs. bullying

Iris McQuillan-Grace of Shelton will appear onstage as Phoebe in As You Like It.

Iris McQuillan-Grace of Shelton will appear onstage as Phoebe in As You Like It.

Acting out scenes from some of the Bard’s well-known plays, professional actors from Shakespeare on the Sound recently taught students in Norwalk, Stamford and Hartford different ways to combat bullying.

“Bullying and peer aggression is generally about an unequal balance of power,” said Emily Bryan, director of education for Shakespeare on the Sound, a professional theater company that has staged outdoor productions each summer since 1996 in Rowayton’s Pinkney Park. People of all ages take blankets and chairs and share picnic dinners in a pastoral setting before the show begins.

This season, As You Like It will be performed in Pinkney Park Thursday, June 13, to Sunday, June 30, at 7:30 p.m.

Speaking Daggers

As part of its commitment to education, in 2012 the theater company designed Speaking Daggers, an interactive program that allows young people to step into a scene that’s being played out onstage and change its outcome Using Shakespeare’s texts, which are fraught with power struggles, chaos, discord and sword fights. The actors demonstrate how a conflict, such as bullying, could be diffused.

Along with Bryan, who resides in Darien, Claire Kelly of New Canaan and Scott Bartelson of Stratford also helped to create Speaking Daggers. Bartelson is the company’s full-time producing associate and teaching artist.

“Our first step in creating Speaking Daggers was to devise a program that wasn’t just a performance where students passively view a show or scene and then leave,” Kelly said. Currently at the helm of As You Like It, Kelly directed Speaking Daggers.

“Other programs bring in a performance and then leave,” she continued. “We wanted to make this workshop more interactive. The whole idea is to create active participants in the program, creating the spectators into ‘spect-actors.’ We wanted to get the students up on their feet interacting with the scenes and Shakespeare’s characters with a constant dialogue back and forth between us and them.”

Kelly has a master of arts degree from New York University. She is the former director of youth programs for Shakespeare on the Sound.

Bartelson is also a graduate of New York University’s educational theater program. His résumé includes working with Shakespeare-to-Go, a touring troupe that performs 60-minute versions of Shakespeare’s plays at inner-city schools in New York City.

A scene from a “Speaking Daggers” program, in which Shakespeare on the Sound presents scenes from Shakespeare plays to illustrate lessons on bullying.

A scene from a “Speaking Daggers” program, in which Shakespeare on the Sound presents scenes from Shakespeare plays to illustrate lessons on bullying.

Getting in the character’s shoes

“We want the kids to put themselves in the characters’ shoes as they watch the scene play out,” Bartelson explained. “We ask them to imagine that they are in this situation and think about what they could do to change it.”

Speaking Daggers utilizes scenes from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. After watching the scene once, students are encouraged to shout “Stop!” during the second performance and enter the scene.

“There’s so many ways to respond when a conflict arises,” said Bartelson. “You could diffuse the situation with comedy, choose to walk away or even use your body to express your feelings.”

With a chuckle, Bartelson admitted that the majority of young people chose to respond with humor.

“They’ll say something like, ‘Let’s not fight. Let’s do a dance-off instead,’” Bartelson said. “It’s funny and engaging.”

Although weighty topics are introduced, such as conflict resolution, cyber bullying and empathy-building, Bartelson said the workshop is “light-hearted.”

However, it’s difficult to cast actors for the education workshops, said Kelly.

“Casting was challenging because we needed to find strong actors who were good with Shakespeare’s language, had experience working with school-age kids and were excellent at improvisation,” Kelly said. “The rehearsal process used a lot of improv.”

The actors needed to be ready for everything their young audience would bring into the scene, she added.

“What always shocks us is that the students are often way more creative than we are in the rehearsal room,” Kelly said. “They come up with tactics that would have never even crossed our minds while rehearsing.”

Shelton resident performs

Iris McQuillan-Grace of Shelton has performed with Speaking Daggers. This summer she will also appear onstage as Phoebe in As You Like It.

“I was really blown away by how receptive the students were,” McQuillan-Grace said. “I was also surprised by their perceptions.”

A graduate of Shelton High School, McQuillan-Grace attended an arts conservatory in the afternoons after completing academic courses in the morning. Her busy schedule didn’t give her time to participate in school productions, although she would have liked to. When she was a teenager, McQuillan-Grace performed with New Haven’s Elm Shakespeare Company each summer. Coincidentally, her first professional role was playing Phoebe in As You Like It. McQuillan-Grace recently received an undergraduate degree from Emerson College and a master’s degree in fine arts from The New School for Drama.

Bartelson said the performance fee for Speaking Daggers is flexible.

“We’re a non-profit organization but we want to strike a balance and get into as many schools as possible,” he said. “We’re willing to negotiate with school districts interested in bringing this powerful program to their students.”

Information about Speaking Daggers and the upcoming production of As You Like It may be found at shakespeareonthesound.org.

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