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Hunts Point Children Take on Shakespeare, then Draft Own Play

By Patrick Wall | May 1, 2012 2:14pm | Updated on May 1, 2012 2:16pm

HUNTS POINT — The Shakespearean actor squinted at her script and recited her lines.

"Give me your hands, if we be friends, and Robin shall restore amends," she uttered, before letting out a sigh and nailing Puck's opening scene of Act 5 in "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

Later, 11-year-old Shekinah King adjusted her headband and revealed the secret to her method: a pestering grandmother.

"When I go to her house, she goes, 'Make sure you’re studying your lines instead of song lyrics,'" Shekinah said.

"And I’m like, ‘OK’."

She is one of about three dozen players in the Hunts Point Children’s Shakespeare Ensemble, an acting troupe that devotes an entire year of study and rehearsal to a single text by the Bard of Avon. This year, the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders will bring "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" to life.

Students in the Hunts Point Children's Shakespeare Ensemble performed "Twelfth Night" in 2011.
Students in the Hunts Point Children's Shakespeare Ensemble performed "Twelfth Night" in 2011.
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Hunts Point Alliance for Children/Chris Arnade

The program is run jointly by the nonprofit Hunts Point Alliance for Children and The Shakespeare Society, which formed the first ensemble in 2007.

If the students stick with Shakespeare through sixth grade, then they graduate into a yearlong drama program for middle-school students, who get to compose and star in their own production.

But first, it’s the "raging rocks and shivering shocks" of Shakespeare.

Students are recruited at the start of the school year by teachers at the participating Hunts Point schools: St. Ignatius School, Hyde Leadership Charter School and P.S. 48.

Once students are accepted into the program, they meet with the ensemble staff two afternoons a week, poring over the weighty text on Wednesdays and sweating through acting exercises — including "Shakespeare aerobics" — on Fridays.

The instructors shortened some of the characters’ speeches and inserted about 500 plain-English footnotes into the script, but the children still recite the original Shakespearean language.

"There is something to be said for the process of speaking a seemingly unspeakable language," said Jordan Dann, a professional actor and a drama instructor at New York University, who leads the children's ensemble.

"Exploring heightened texts," she added, "demands that we step into our heightened selves."

For Dreemar Nisbeth, 10, that includes discovering the meaning of votaress, oxlip and ass.

"When I looked it up online, they said it was a donkey," said Dreemar, who plays Francis Flute.

Maryann Hedaa, a former Catholic nun who founded the Alliance, said the ensemble staff designed an entire curriculum to help students untangle Shakespeare’s rhetoric and themes.

"It’s like learning a new language," said Hedaa, who added that pre- and post-tests have shown that the program boosts the actors’ vocabulary and reading comprehension.

Gifty Boahene said her daughter, Chelsea Augustine, 10, recites her lines each night after she finishes her homework. She has even heard Chelsea practice her part in the shower.

"By the time I’m done memorizing my lines," said Chelsea, "I feel like I’ve accomplished something."

In the program for seventh- and eighth-graders, called the Storefront Ensemble, students spent months drafting and revising responses to prompts, such as, "What will your life be like in 15 years?" or "Write a eulogy for a loved one."

Then the head of the program, Devin Norik, wove the best piece from each of the 15 students into a sort of spoken-word play, called "Where I’m From: Stories from Hunts Point."

In the show, one girl recalls gossiping school bullies, while another rages against boys who "think it’s appropriate to call a driven, opinionated, intelligent lady a 'female dog.'"

An eighth-grader, Eduardo Gomez, describes the hardships where he’s from — gunshots, prostitution, drugs — but also how he plans to transcend them.

"By doing good in school, getting a good job and getting a lot of money," Eduardo, 14, said after rehearsal.

The playwright performers are required to maintain good grades in school, complete each writing assignment and attend every rehearsal, including three-hour Saturday workshops.

In the process, the students come to understand commitment and accountability, said Norik, an actor who earned an MFA from New York University’s Graduate Acting Program.

"They also learn about their artistic voice," he added, "and how much power they have."

The Storefront Ensemble will perform at 4 p.m. on Saturday at The Point, at 940 Garrison Ave. in The Bronx. They will present an encore performance to raise funds for the program at 6:15 p.m. on June 11 at the Barnes and Noble at 150 East 86th St. in Manhattan.

The Shakespeare Ensemble will perform on May 19 at 6 p.m. at The Point. They will present a benefit performance on May 20 at 6 p.m. at Five Angels Theater on 789 Tenth Ave. in Manhattan.