Youth enjoy camaraderie, performing Shakespeare during summer camp

“They call themselves the Shakespeare family,” said Steve Iwanski, who leads the Greenwood Shakespeare Project.

This year, the group consists of 13 participants ranging from age 12 to 16.

Nine of the participants are returning for the third annual five-week summer camp, which will be capped with a “Shakespeare Scene Fest” on Aug. 2-4. Several of the ones returning are now Shakespeare veterans, having attended all three years.

Aaliyah Evans uses a drill to construct part of the set.

Aaliyah Evans uses a drill to construct part of the set.

“When I started this two years ago, what I didn’t expect is it’s become like a school where they are a class rising through the years together,” said Iwanski. “There’s a great thing that comes out of them working together on this every year and the fact that we have so many veteran kids coming back. The kids who were new were nervous and unsure for maybe the first day or two, but they saw how comfortable everyone else was around each other, and they just bought in.”

For many of the participants returning, the summer camp is not only five weeks of learning about a poet and playwright who is largely considered the greatest writer in the English language, designing and constructing a set, and creating costumes, but it’s also five weeks of camaraderie.

“I love coming here, because it feels like a family,” said Niobi Elliott, a 14-year-old from Memphis who summers in Greenwood. “We get to enjoy each other’s company and take four hours out of our day to just do something with each other that involves acting, learning something new, building, painting, trying on costumes, getting into characters and learning lines — things that will help us within our school year.”

Niobi has participated since the first year. So has Greenwood 16-year-old Aaliyah Evans.

“You have a lot of fun, and you are working together. We are growing up as a family,” said Evans.

The camp and upcoming “Shakespeare Scene Fest” is a program sponsored by the Greenwood Shakespeare Project, ArtPlace Mississippi and Greenwood Little Theatre.

At the end of the camp, the group will perform 16 scenes from William Shakespeare plays “The Winter’s Tale,” “The Tempest,” “Pericles,” “As You Like It,” “All’s Well That Ends Well,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Coriolanus,” “Henry VI,” “Cymbeline” and “Love’s Labour’s Lost.”

Iwanski, a former teacher who now manages TurnRow Books, started the Greenwood Shakespeare Project as a way to not only teach a younger generation about the playwright but to put Shakespeare in front of audiences, where he said it’s meant to be.

Ahmad Evans and E.J. Davis

Ahmad Evans and E.J. Davis

“We’re trying to prevent Mississippi from becoming a Shakespeare desert,” he said. “Shakespeare is for everybody. It’s not meant to just be read in a classroom. It’s meant to be enjoyed in a theater. I get great joy out of just putting Shakespeare in front of people here in town. I think it’s endlessly enriching and entertaining.”

Iwanski said it’s exciting to see how the kids interpret and act out their parts.

“At an academic level even, just seeing how their minds put together these scenes is fascinating to me,” he said. “It’s really interesting the choices they are making as actors and actresses.”

While the scene fest covers Shakespeare’s well-known works, such as “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” or “Romeo and Juliet” and “Hamlet” in years past, it also features scenes from some of the plays that are not as famous, however, still great works.

For example, a scene from Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” will be performed this year. The play, lesser known than some of the bard’s other work, is a tragedy about a Roman general.

“The great thing about doing a scene fest like this is we can zero in on the best scene from a play and bring it to the attention of not just these kids but to an audience,” said Iwanski.

With “Coriolanus,” a masculine play mostly dominated by men, Iwanski decided to highlight a scene focusing on female characters — the main character’s mother and wife.

“What I think what’s cool about that is even someone who is an expert in ‘Coriolanus’ — a professor comes in here and knows that play well — even he or she will have their minds opened by it,” he said. “We could have done scenes with battles and blood, but it’s two women talking quietly that we choose from the play, and even if you know the play, that’s powerful.”

Paige Wilson, 14, of Greenwood is returning for her second year and playing Volumnia in “Coriolanus.” She said this is her favorite role.

“There’s just so much emotion in this one character, and my character says so much and puts so much emotion in her words,” she said.

Paige, who knew little about Shakespeare before attending the summer camp last year, said one of her favorite parts of the five weeks is “the experience of going more in-depth of what Shakespeare actually is.”

“You may think he is just writing a bunch of things with meaningless lines until you delve into and analyze them,” she said.

For Sydney Beane, 12, of Grenada and Katlyn Issac, 13, of Greenwood, this is their first year to attend the camp. The two, who have become friends, both said they are enjoying the experience.

Raghav Nallani, left, and Niobi Elliott rehearse a sword fight that will be featured in the upcoming “Shakespeare Scene Fest.”

Raghav Nallani, left, and Niobi Elliott rehearse a sword fight that will be featured in the upcoming “Shakespeare Scene Fest.”

“We have been learning what the lines mean, and we are building a boat,” said Katlyn, who has enjoyed the opportunity to use power tools to assemble the set.

Sydney, on the other hand, did not like the construction work as much, but she said she’s having fun at the camp.

“I’ve enjoyed it,” she said. “It’s been a learning experience for me, because I wasn’t familiar with Shakespeare and just the first week where you sit down, look at it and figure out what it actually means, that really helped me.”

The participants take a lot of pride in their hard work over the five weeks.

“I’m all about giving these kids the opportunity to have a stake in Shakespeare,” said Iwanski. “The amount of ownership they get in this production is unlike anything else.”

For many of the participants, the best part of the Shakespeare camp is being on the stage.

“For me, it has to be on opening night and all through those three days of performing and when you get all the jitters out when you’re finally on stage,” said Victoria Reed, 16, of Greenwood. “Coming up to it, it’s a little rough but you finally get there, and it’s just such a satisfying feeling.”

Raghav Nallani, 16, of Greenwood agreed, “The performances are always the best.”

“One of the perks of being on stage is you get to make the audience feel what you want them to feel,” he said. “You throw yourself into the character so much that you’re not left. It’s just the character.”

This year, the group has a goal to have a sellout night at the theater.

“We have 200 seats here at the theater, and we’ve come very close each of the last two years,” said Iwanski.

The participants are selling $5 tickets before the performances. Tickets can also be purchased by phone at 947-1075 or online at www.greenwoodlittletheatre.com. At the door, tickets will be $10.

The presale tickets are a new way to promote the event in hopes of having a sellout night.

With 13 talented young kids performing Shakespeare on stage, Iwanski asked, “Why shouldn’t we sell out a night?”