Feb. 9, 2005 - Don't expect to hear phony English accents here. These students are actors in the truest Shakespearean sense of the word. They are here to take four-century-old words and give them as much life, texture and warmth as the Globe stage in 1600s London.
Terry Erbe's drama students took their monologues to the curtains of a slightly newer stage on Feb. 4 - that of Catalina Foothills High School. They were participating in a Shakespeare contest organized as part of the English-Speaking Union's nationwide competition.
"Their main mission, as near as I can understand it, is just to keep Shakespeare alive and vibrant in the high school classrooms," said Erbe, who is artistic director at the high school. Winners of the school competition will go on to a regional competition and, if successful there, to New York for nationals.
While Foothills students previously have participated in the English-Speaking Union's competition, this year was a particularly enlightening Shake-spearean experience, particularly for the teacher.
Erbe received a July 2004 scholarship to an English-Speaking Union Shakespeare workshop in London.
"I was very, very honest about the fact that Shakespeare scared me to death," he said. "Even though I have been in theater for 25 years or so, I had never acted in Shakespeare, never directed Shakespeare. I've seen a lot of bad Shakespeare. I've had my taste for Shakespeare kind of ruined and I didn't want to tackle Shakespeare without having some kind of training."
As a high school theater teacher, Erbe said he thought his reluctance was a major weakness and one he was willing to overcome.
After three weeks in London, Erbe said he came back with a better understanding of the bard.
Erbe got an education in acting, diction, movement, textual analysis, and the life and times of William Shakespeare.
"They've rebuilt the Globe about a block away from where it originally stood," he said. "There's no lighting other than the basic lighting that they bring in to replicate sunlight. They make a big deal out of the fact that the actors and the audience share the same light."
"I think the best seats in the house there are the groundlings who stand on the ground in front of the stage. Š You're about chin-level with the stage, you're watching these actors and very often these actors are including the audience in what they're doing, as they would have back then. It's really an incredible experience. Š I've got video of me actually performing on the Globe stage and, yeah, we had a good time," Erbe said.
He said the trip was eye opening because he was "surrounded by people who were really good about taking 400-year-old words and making them come alive for right here and right now and making them really immediate and important in this moment."
That British experience varied greatly from some of Erbe's American experiences with Shakespeare productions.
"A lot of the Shakespeare that I've seen here in the states, I think they're really lazy about just saying 'You're supposed to enjoy this just because it's Shakespeare,'" he said.
In training his students to perform Shakespeare, Erbe said he spent more time breaking bad habits than teaching new ones.
He said he had to instruct his students "to get past this idea that because it's Shakespeare, they have to take on some different gesture with their body, different posture or take on a different voice or try to do an accent or something like that. I've got to get them just to calm down and get to the basic idea of what it is that they're really saying, just like with normal acting. Just try to get them to say it as honestly as possible."
That truth and honesty is readily available in the words Shakespeare penned.
Erbe said the reason the playwright from Stratford-upon-Avon's works still endure is that their themes are universal, even when the subject matter is not.
"Even when he's dealing with aristocracy, it still comes down to emotions and themes that we're still dealing with today," Erbe said. "There were some moments with Romeo and Juliet when you really get that feeling that there's this cord going back in time, connecting you with something that was happening 400 years ago, and that's really exciting."
The language connecting those two distinct times can be a hurdle, the teacher admitted, and it was something he worked on both during his London experience and with his students.
That included everything from learning what Shakespeare probably was taught in high school to breaking down the definitions of words that have long since gone out of circulation.
For their monologues in the Shakespeare contest, they were permitted to update the language, but in accordance with the contest rules, Erbe offered students little direction when it came to their performance.
However, his advanced and intermediate theater classes did get an in-depth look at four of the bard's plays and some lessons on how to read Shakespeare.
"I do some work with them on the cause-and-effect relationship within the plot, how one thing leads to the next, leads to the next," Erbe explained. "By going with cause and effect you can sort of follow the through-line of the story and spot where the substories are that get away from the actual main plotline so that they have an idea of how to follow the story."
That so many people have read and seen those stories upon the page and stage makes their appeal even broader, Erbe said.
"I think there's a built-in mechanism," he explained. "Every play that he's got, there's so many books on breaking it down and dissecting it and looking at every word. I don't think you could take him out of the curriculum even if you wanted to. Š I think he's as active and vibrant as he's ever been."