Four years ago, seventh and eighth grade students came together to mount Twelfth Night, and the first performance of the Hewitt Shakespeare Workshop was born. In the intervening years, the Workshop has performed Romeo and Juliet, The Comedy of Errors, and, most recently, All the World’s a Stage, a collection of scenes and monologues from Shakespeare’s body of work. Hewitt students put on a variety of performances each year, including a middle school musical, a middle and upper school musical, and an upper school play, and the seventh and eighth grade Shakespeare Workshop developed out of a desire to offer our oldest middle school students an opportunity to do a dramatic play of their own. Given our founder Caroline Hewitt’s well-documented love for the Bard, Shakespeare’s plays seemed a perfect fit. Each year, Workshop students put on a production that matches their interests and strengths. Alumnae of the group are very supportive of later productions – upper school students often volunteer to help backstage and they attend the performance as enthusiastic audience members.
After considering that a full play would relegate some actors to smaller parts, the members of this year’s Workshop decided to assemble a performance that combined portions of a number of Shakespeare’s plays to allow everyone a chance at an important role. The group spent the first month of the rehearsal process watching films of staged plays and cinematic adaptations, reading plays and scenes, and learning about the world of Renaissance theater, a process that allowed the actors to discover scenes that spoke to them as performers. The actors identified the sorts of roles that they were most interested in performing, choosing a range of scenes from the comedy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the drama of Macbeth. They collaborated on the direction and blocking of each scene, chose and assembled their own costumes and props, ran the lights, illustrated the program and posters, and even chose the interstitial music that played in between scenes.
The seventh and eighth grade Shakespeare Workshop has been a unique opportunity for small but mighty groups of young actors to gain confidence by experiencing all the steps necessary to give life to these 400 year old plays. The students wrestle with the meanings of the texts, but even more importantly they wrestle with a deeper understanding of metaphors present in Shakespeare's writing. Each text includes layers upon layers of meaning, and the girls learn to investigate this by peeling apart the subtle and complex nuances of each word and phrase. These students are passionate about this work, and pass their deep knowledge and expertise about Shakespeare’s plays to their fellow students, inspiring an even broader appreciation of the Bard here at Hewitt. By giving students an opportunity to take the lead in directing their learning, and by giving them ample opportunities to use their voices both on stage and from the theater wings, Hewitt’s Shakespeare Workshop puts into practice principles that we know are critical to how girls learn best. The Workshop nurtures students' nascent ability to examine, perform, and direct the plays of one of the greatest writers in the English language.