Lunchtime last Friday at the Hayground School was far from typical—a sword fight had erupted in one room, down the hall from a shipwreck in another. Kids put the final touches on their Shakespearean outfits in the art room, and rainbow curtains hung in the gym.
The students had transformed their school into a theatrical workshop as they rehearsed their adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” a play about self-discovery that opens Thursday night, December 17, at Guild Hall in East Hampton.
The entire Hayground School student body—85 children between ages 3 and 13—is involved in the play, in one way or another, according to Jon Snow, who helped co-found the Bridgehampton school in 1996. Despite having to decipher Shakespearean English, which can be a daunting task, the students were completely focused, serious and engaged in their lines.
That’s because, Mr. Snow noted, they understood those lines.
He largely credited Shakespeare & Company, an actor-training program based in the Berkshires of Massachusetts that returned for its 18th annual educational residency at the school. The troupe sent four professional actors to help the students study the story, text and history of this romantic comedy—the classic love triangle between nobleman Orsino, who loves Lady Olivia, who loves Cesario, who is really a woman named Viola, who loves Orsino.
Every day, the students warmed up in a circle and checked in, often by answering a question—for example: “If you could be an ice cream, what would you be?”—which can give insight into each student’s psyche, Mr. Snow said. Then, after they learn their lines, they practice speaking them and “reinforce.”
“I reinforce all of your great energy,” said Artistic Director Amanda Newcomer, one of the four actors who visited the school, sitting in a circle with about four students.
Thirteen-year-old Julian Cheng and 12-year-old Miles Clarke were charged with portraying Cesario—who is really Viola in disguise—and Sir Andrew, respectively, dueling to win the love of Lady Olivia, acted by 13-year-old Isabelle Topliff. They ran toward each other and collided their two wooden swords, an added perk of the roles.
Isabelle said she likes that everyone’s identities are a mystery for much of the play, as well as “all of the rejection.”
“I will respect that I was given a sword,” Julian added.
Mr. Snow said that the students enjoy “Twelfth Night” because of its light-hearted nature and it allows them to invest their full energy. “We are synchronistic with our philosophy,” Mr. Snow said. “The amount of physical energy and the kinetic aspect is important. Thinking and moving goes hand in hand.”
Marcelle Langendal, also a co-founder of the Hayground School, said it is relatively easy for the students to learn the play, even the 3-year-olds, who will recite 12 lines in unison to open the performance. Even the youngest children are involved in learning about Shakespeare and, by the time they are 13, they will have already been exposed to several of his plays.
“Shakespeare & Company has introduced Shakespeare to American kids,” Mr. Snow said. “They go so deeply into the text and amplify its meaning.
“This is in them,” he added. “You just have to uncover it.”
Shakespeare & Company’s residency will culminate in two performances of “Twelfth Night” on Thursday, December 17, at 1 and 6 p.m. at Guild Hall in East Hampton. Suggested donation is $10. Proceeds will benefit Hayground School’s Visiting Arts program. For more information, visit hayground.org.