By Anne Marie Mistretta EBS Contributor
BIG SKY – The Warren Miller Performing Arts Center, located on the Lone Peak High School campus, is essentially two theaters, programming for both school and community. Those two functions met Jan. 19 when the cast of Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,” coached Big Sky’s middle and high school students in acting.
WMPAC Artistic Director John Zirkle arranged the workshop where retired Montana Shakespeare In The Parks and Schools coordinators, Joel and Kathy Jahnke, joined the New York City based cast. Zirkle’s goal is to integrate WMPAC performers with LPHS students whenever he can.
“Big Sky may be isolated, but we can also be cosmopolitan,” Zirkle said.Stephanie DiMaggio, who recently starred in Boston’s Huntington Theater production of “A Confederacy of Dunces” and who has been featured during WMPAC’s summer conservatories, recalled that a life-changing experience for her was dressing up as a youngster to see professional actors in the theater. Zirkle wants to extend that experience to Big Sky’s students by bringing WMPAC performers right into classrooms.
Students acknowledged they struggle with Shakespearean English, likening it to a foreign language. Students also reported that it’s challenging to understand the context in which a character is speaking a line.
Using scenes from various Shakespearean plays, the actors taught students deeper understanding of text, language and imagery, as well as projection and exaggerated emotion-laden movement to convey messages to audiences.
“Emphasize the important words, speak the ‘throw-aways’ in softer voices, lean into the vowels and don’t crunch your voice,” said Laura Savia, director of “The Winter’s Tale” and associate artistic director of the Tony Award-Winning Williamstown Theater Festival.
Perhaps more importantly, the actors helped students understand that a play is about the human condition. The acting lessons at times seemed like lessons for life. DiMaggio asked the students, “Why do people love Shakespeare? Because at the end of the day, the feelings behind it are about the human condition.”
Actor Hoon Lee, who most recently starred as the King of Siam in Lincoln Center’s “The King and I,” spoke of drama as, “An exercise in being a human being. Discomfort is where you grow.” Lee counseled students to pursue theater, if they find any connection with a play, because “it’s a metric to understand who you are.”
Savia told the students that the theater gives power to its performers.
“You’ve just worked with a few sentences, and you used power. You will take thatexperience into life,” she said. “You will be stronger in any meeting and elsewhere because of it.”
One participant questioned whether students in a technological future will be exposed to Shakespeare.
“If we ever stop being so human, it will fade away … if it ever stops speaking to the heart,” responded actor Brendan Dalton. Danny Williams, a producer, assured the group that a lot of Shakespeare is found in contemporary plotlines, offering “The Lion King” as a recent example.
Through highly structured outreach, WMPAC aims to connect inquisitive students, passionate educators, artistic directors, and accomplished professionals to look beyond the word “art” and get into the gritty details of how to deliver a great story, according to Zirkle.