MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Friday, May 20, was a special day at Columbia High School as more than 300 students performed in the school’s highly anticipated 14th annual Shakespeare Festival.
Participants from grades 10 through 12 took to the stage all day to perform an impressive nine shows, one per class period. Close to 2,000 students, parents and friends were in attendance throughout the day, appreciating the hilarity and drama before them while frequently joining in the fun and calling out in support of the entertainers.
Highlights of the day included a dance inspired by “Romeo and Juliet” by the CHS Infinite Step Team, a recreation of the number “I Hate Shakespeare” from the hit Broadway musical “Something Rotten,” a special guest appearance by the South Orange Middle School Shakespeare Club, some juggling and a variety of scenes performed from such plays as “Macbeth,” “Othello,” “Julius Caesar,” “Twelfth Night” and “Much Ado About Nothing,” among others. Emcees Laura Hirsch, Samantha Colon and Samori Etienne introduced each act and kept the audience’s attention between numbers with playful banter and improvisation.
The festival was largely planned and organized by English teacher Steve MacPherson, currently in his 18th year at CHS, and the CHS Shakespeare Festival Club. In a phone interview with the News-Record, MacPherson said the inspiration for the Shakespeare Festival came from a former CHS department head who pushed for a more hands-on learning approach to Shakespeare.
“Actually, it started in 2001,” MacPherson said. “Our department head at the time, Dr. Robert Young, had his Ph.D. in Shakespeare. One day, he pulled all of the teachers together for a workshop on how to teach Shakespeare through performance. All of the teachers were really jazzed after the workshop and, under Dr. Young’s guidance, we held the first CHS Shakespeare Festival in the spring of 2002. Each year since then, it has continued to grow.
“After the first couple of festivals,” MacPherson continued, “some kids came to me and asked, ‘Can’t we do this all year?’ So, we formed the Shakespeare Festival Club.”
The club meets Thursday afternoons throughout the school year. Although the students come and go as their schedules and other activities permit, there is a core group. Club members play with Shakespeare scenes of their choosing during meetings, often putting a unique, modern twist on the bard’s words. In so doing, they embody the theme of this year’s festival, “he was not of an age, but for all time,” the famous quote about Shakespeare attributed to the playwright, actor and critic Ben Jonson, one of his contemporaries.
During the weeks leading up to the festival, CHS Shakespeare Festival Club members put all their energy into the upcoming extravaganza. They judged logos and posters for the show, prepared chocolate “Bard Bars” to hand out to participants, distributed fliers advertising the festival, coordinated props, blocked scenes, memorized lines and lyrics, and of course rehearsed.
Their hard work of every participating English class resulted in a successful day and a feeling of achievement shared by all.
“Sometimes, they may go in kicking and screaming,” MacPherson said, “but after the festival, they all have such a sense of accomplishment. Even if they never do it again, they can now say, ‘I got on stage and performed Shakespeare.’ As for the audience, we just hope they get a different glimpse of Shakespeare, one where they can just sit and enjoy it, without worrying about being graded.”
MacPherson made a point of thanking all who contributed to the success of this year’s festival, particularly the English Department. Without a doubt, many thanks are also owed to MacPherson himself for his enthusiasm and time. And while the 14th festival just concluded, Columbia’s young minds are already beginning to think ahead to next year’s performances.
Photos by Cynthia Burks