By Emily J. Weitz
For 19 years, professional actors and directors have come down from Lenox, Massachusetts with Shakespeare & Co to live on the South Fork and work daily with the entire population of the Hayground School. And they have not shied away from the more obscure of the Bard’s work. The students, who range in age from three to 14, have performed works from “Twelfth Night” to “Cymbeline.” But this year they’ll be bringing Shakespeare’s most well-loved play, “Romeo and Juliet,” to life in classic Hayground style.
Caitlin Kraft has been one of the directors in residence at Hayground for the past four years, making the annual pilgrimage from Lenox to immerse herself in Bridgehampton in the winter. While she participates in all sorts of workshops and performances with Shakespeare & Co year-round, she says the Hayground residency is unique for a few key reasons.
“This is the only residency where we travel, we’re here for a month, and it’s the whole school participating,” said Ms. Kraft. “It’s this entirely immersive experience of the whole school community telling a story together.”
During rehearsals, all the students have opportunities to read different parts, and in that way they are able to step into roles that may have otherwise seemed inaccessible. For example, there’s a scene where Lord Capulet casts Juliet out, and it’s easy to hate him for it. But given the way the students are learning the script, the directors have found that it encourages a sense of empathy.
“Since they experience all different parts of the play,” said Ms. Kraft, “they’re able to put themselves in the shoes of someone with whom they don’t have a common experience. That’s an important lesson.”
Grace Lazarz, who is at Hayground for the first time this year, agrees.
“That Lord Capulet scene is always a big game changer,” she said. “You see it differently once you’re in his shoes.”
The four directors want students to feel a connection to the character they end up playing, so after they all have read through and discussed the play, students are asked to make a list of the top five characters they would want to play. Directors make sure each student is placed in one of those roles.
“We prod them with questions about the characters they’ve chosen,” said Greg Boover, who’s been with Shakespeare & Co for four years but is new to the Hayground residency. “We’ll ask them, ‘How would you feel if you were Tybalt in that moment?’ We give them permission. How incredible that these students get to experience this play by doing instead of reading?”
With themes like love and death, family and forgiveness, the stakes in Romeo and Juliet are exceptionally high. But Annie Considine, who’s at Hayground for the third year and has been involved with Shakespeare & Co since she was a kid herself, thinks that’s exactly why the play resonates with students.
“The stakes are really high because the stories we are telling are life and death situations,” said Ms. Considine, and that’s kind of how they live their lives. It’s fascinating to watch them jump into the story and go at it.”
The directors agree that the timeless themes of Shakespeare are easy for kids to grasp. Adults may get bogged down with the language or the time period, but at their core, the themes are simple.
“It’s about things being fair or not,” said Ms. Kraft, “or love and family. Or forgiveness. These are things they understand, and the rest of it comes pretty naturally.”
Because they are learning new words all the time, it isn’t overwhelming for them to approach Shakespeare, as it might be for older people, she added. And once the language is grasped, then they can infuse them with the spirit they were meant to have.
“Young people have a special gift for putting life into these giant words,” said Mr. Boover. “These massive words and these massive thoughts, they take a lot to trudge through in learning. But once they understand why they’re saying it, they’re uninhibited in their delivery. In a professional world or late in life we look at these plays and we can get stuck intellectually. Students have direct access to the life behind the words.”
Hayground students will perform Romeo and Juliet at Guild Hall in East Hampton on Thursday, December 15 at 1 and 6 p.m. For more information, visit hayground.org.