Eras meet in fair Verona

Actors bring centuries-old literature to life for local students with lessons in 'Romeo and Juliet.'

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Shakespeare-- In Jessica Salvador's 9th grade english class at Desales Catholic High School. Gavin Mclean from Seattle Shakespeare Company and Ms. Salvador lead the students in theater exericse before reading Romeo and Juliet. 3/25/10 Joe Tierney

WALLA WALLA -- At the end of their dance, Alex Buley curtsied in gratitude to her partner, Paul Elmenhurst, who bowed in return. The DeSales Catholic High School students then lifted their hands into the air to meet in a double high-five.

A modern sign of accomplishment and celebration, the high-five would have likely befuddled teens in the Elizabethan era, which is the period of the dancing Buley and Elmenhurst had been practicing with their classmates moments earlier.

For teens more than 400 years ago, the strange hand gesture would have been only one of several oddities about present youth. With her skinny jeans and sandals baring her toes, Buley showed how far young girls have come from the days of corsets, hoops and skirts.

Young men, too, would have been shocked to see Elmenhurst in a flannel shirt and jeans, doing nothing to show off his calves, as a pair of tights might do.

But differences aside, tackling the dancing that dates back hundreds of years was a highlight for Buley and Elmenhurst as they wrapped up a nearly weeklong lesson on Shakespeare.

"It was awesome," Elmenhurst said about the morning lesson, which outlined the appropriate clothing, customs and dances of an Elizabethan ball.

"This is the best unit we've done," Buley agreed.

Over four days this week, first-year students at DeSales, Walla Walla High School and Waitsburg High School worked with professional actors in their English classrooms to get better acquainted with the world of William Shakespeare and his classic tragedy of star-crossed lovers, "Romeo and Juliet."

Gavin Sakae McLean, an actor with the Seattle Shakespeare Company, said "Romeo and Juliet" works particularly well in the classroom. The characters in the play are about the same age as the students who participated in the lessons this week. Juliet was just shy of 14 when she met Romeo and fell in love with him at her family's ball, which Romeo was crashing.

Sakae McLean was among six actors from Seattle who worked with area youth this week as part of an ongoing effort to bring Shakespeare's works to Walla Walla. The actors were in classes through a partnership with the Seattle Shakespeare Company and Shakespeare Uncork'd Walla Walla, which has brought Shakespeare productions to Walla Walla since 2008.

Together, the groups have in the past reached out to classrooms by offering one-day workshops focused on that year's summer production. This year marks the start of a more in-depth education outreach, which brought the Shakespeare actors to 22 classrooms in three schools over four days. All ninth-grade English classes at Wa-Hi, DeSales, and Waitsburg learned about "Romeo and Juliet" this week. Three sophomore classes at Wa-Hi also participated.

This year's education launches a three-year effort that will include seventh-grade students next year, and fifth-grade students the following. This year is also unique because students learned "Romeo and Juliet," instead of this summer's Shakespeare production, "Much Ado About Nothing."

Michelle Traverso, education director at the Seattle Shakespeare Company, said a goal of the program is to bring the plays to life for the teens, "So each kid has a personal connection to the play," she said.

The students learned about Shakespeare's time, from language, to customs, to dress, dancing and even staged combat. Sakae McLean said by bringing the characters and customs of the time to life, Walla Walla youth will gain a deeper connection with Shakespeare's works.

Tuesday, the students learned about the art of combat during the period, and staged fights. Wednesday was devoted to social customs, dress and dance. The unit included explanations for why men and women dressed like they did, and all that could be expressed by the way a man and woman held hands during a dance.

The outreach ends Friday, when the actors perform "Romeo and Juliet" at Wa-Hi for all participating students.

DeSales English teacher Jessica Salvador said she was contacted early last year by the groups to coordinate for this year's lessons. Part of the education outreach included workshops for teachers to give them greater understanding on how to teach Shakespeare's works.

Traverso said offering "Romeo and Juliet" was also fitting because most students will learn the play in ninth grade.

"It's already in the curriculum," she said. "I really want to serve those teachers, and make that core curriculum come to life for the kids."

Salvador plans to start reading "Romeo and Juliet" with her students in April, after spring break and following the Shakespeare Company's outreach work.

"I decided this would be the best way to introduce it," she said about the interactive lessons.

"So many of the kids are intimidated by Shakespeare," she explained. Taking the week to learn more specifically about Shakespeare will now benefit them as they tackle his works.

"They realize Shakespeare quotes are everywhere," she said, showing how relevant Shakespeare is even today.

"It's important for me as a teacher that they get that, so they're not afraid of it."

Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at mariagonzalez@wwub.com or 526-8317. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/schoolhousemissives.

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