Youth preparing for upcoming ‘Summer Scene Fest’

Greenwood Shakespeare Project Director Steve Iwanski says the fourth annual summer program’s returning participants are “the Delta’s experts on Shakespeare performance.”

“I think I can certainly say these kids know more about Shakespeare performance than anybody else in the Delta, and that’s worth seeing,” he said.

This year’s group of 11 Greenwood Shakespeare Project participants — ranging from grade 7 to 12 — will perform 15 scenes from 11 of William Shakespeare’s works at 7 p.m. Thursday, Friday and next Saturday. The “Shakespeare Summer Scene Fest” will be held at Greenwood Little Theatre’s W.M. Whittington Jr. Playhouse.

Iwanski said when the Greenwood Shakespeare Project first started in 2016, he thought many of the first-year participants would not return the next summer — much less each of the following three years.

“I assumed that those kids would get so worn out and tired of me and Shakespeare that none of them would come back, and we would just start from scratch again in the second year,” he said. “But almost all of them came back. ... So instead of starting over with a brand-new class each year, what we’ve accidentally built is a Shakespeare repertory company of teenagers.”

Sewing costumes at ArtPlace Mississippi are Paige Wilson, left, a Shakespeare summer camp volunteer who was a member of last year’s “Summer Scene Fest” cast, and Aaliyah Evans, a fourth-year Shakespeare camper.

Sewing costumes at ArtPlace Mississippi are Paige Wilson, left, a Shakespeare summer camp volunteer who was a member of last year’s “Summer Scene Fest” cast, and Aaliyah Evans, a fourth-year Shakespeare camper.

Greenwood Shakespeare Project, in collaboration with ArtPlace Mississippi and Greenwood Little Theatre, holds a five-week summer camp that culminates the following week with a three-night live performance of a medley of scenes from various Shakespeare plays.

During the five weeks, the campers are trained in Shakespeare’s plays and Elizabethan stage conventions, set construction, music, dance, and scenery and costume design. They perform the production with a set they built while wearing costumes they created.

“That’s the theme of what we do — the pride and the ownership that the kids have,” said Iwanski. “You already feel those things when you put on any Greenwood Little Theatre production. The cast works really, really hard, and they feel so much pride and joy putting it on. But I can’t imagine how much more these kids feel knowing that they are wearing the costumes they sewed and performing with the set that they built. ... And that’s probably why they keep coming back.”

This upcoming “Scene Fest” will be a special performance for the four-year members.

“As we set out to do in 2016, we will now have put on at least one scene from the complete works of William Shakespeare in this show,” said Iwanski.

Aaliyah Evans, 17, said it feels like an accomplishment, and it’s one that not many her age can add to their resumes.

“Not even a lot of people over my age,” she said. “They only know five plays from Shakespeare, and we just did (scenes) from all 38.”

Nayia Elliott, left, works on making the Elizabethan ruffle shirt collars that will be worn in the upcoming “Shakespeare Summer Scene Fest.” Raghav Nallani models the finished product.

Nayia Elliott, left, works on making the Elizabethan ruffle shirt collars that will be worn in the upcoming “Shakespeare Summer Scene Fest.” Raghav Nallani models the finished product.

Another four-year, Raghav Nallani, 17, said being able to perform in a scene from each of Shakespeare’s plays is amazing.

“It’s not something people get to do often,” he said. “So it’s a pretty big opportunity, and a great accomplishment.”

Finishing the Bard’s plays this year left space open in the show to bring back a few previously performed works, such as “Romeo and Juliet” and “Richard III.”

Raghav, who enjoys playing Shakespeare’s villains, will be reprising his role as Richard in “Richard III.”

“He’s got this energy about him,” said Raghav, who will soon be a senior at the Mississippi School for Math and Science. “It’s evil but it’s a powerful energy that I’ve noticed the more you read Richard’s lines. ... It’s a good throwback to end my Shakespeare career.”

Raghav will also be starring as Romeo in the balcony scene from “Romeo and Juliet.”

“Romeo is not one I’m particularly fond of,” he said. “It’s too romancey. I prefer the darker characters.”

Playing Juliet will be four-year Shakespeare camper Niobi Elliott, who actually helped build the balcony where she will stand from in the iconic love scene.

Niobi Elliott paints the balcony where she will stand from while performing her role as Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet.”

Niobi Elliott paints the balcony where she will stand from while performing her role as Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet.”

“I find Juliet as a very interesting character, because it’s just how can I portray Juliet?” Niobi, 15, said. “She’s a person who loves everybody. I do too, but she’s sweeter.”

Niobi’s role as Juliet is a big contrast from another one of her leading roles, Hamlet.

“It’s just portraying the right character at the right time,” she said. “They are all different people. Hamlet is very dark, and Juliet is very light.”

Joining Niobi at the Shakespeare camp this year is her younger sister, Nayia.

“At first, to tell you the truth, I didn’t really like Shakespeare,” Nayia said.

But then Nayia found a video online last year that changed her mind about the prolific playwright.

“I learned more about Shakespeare and about how he added more to our vocabulary,” said the 12-year-old. “That’s how I got interested. It was during my seventh grade year that I actually found the video, and then I just got hooked.”

She will be appearing as one of her favorite characters, the gravedigger in “Hamlet.”

“One of my lines says, ‘What, art a heathen? How dost thou understand the Scripture?’ I really like that line because it really goes with my connection with the church,” Nayia said. “I can just relate with that line.”

Aaliyah, who will be a senior at the Mississippi School of the Arts in Brookhaven, said one character she is looking forward to playing is Sir Toby in “Twelfth Night.”

“It’s my favorite one, because it’s so funny to me,” she said. “I’ve got to try not to laugh on stage.”

The last “Scene Fest” performance may be a bittersweet moment for Aaliyah.

“I’m about to be a senior, and this is the hard part: What if this is my last year of Shakespeare? That’s the only thing that’s been in my head for about a month now,” she said.

For Aaliyah and many of the participants, the Shakespeare camp is their “home away from home” during summer break.

Raghav said he has looked forward to the camp every year.

“Shakespeare is one of my favorite things to do over the summer. It’s basically all I look forward to during the school year,” he said. “I just look forward to seeing everyone from Shakespeare and acting out the plays, doing all the research, and all the things that go with it.”

Even first-year camper Nayia immediately felt the camaraderie.

“It’s really fun,” she said. “You get to meet people, and these people turn into your family. You can relate to them and express yourself and open up to these people.”

Iwanski expressed pride in his group of dedicated and talented Shakespeare performers.

“They’ve taken some really difficult scenes and have done great things with them,” he said. “The choices you make as an actor or director come from your own experience, and kids in the Delta are going to interpret Shakespeare differently from kids in London or kids from Michigan.

“I don’t think Shakespeare ever expected that 400 years after his death that his plays would be performed in Mississippi by a bunch of kids — frankly, at that point, I don’t think they even knew Mississippi existed in the early 1600s. I think that he would be tickled to see specifically the comedy scenes that he wrote and how they can be so easily adapted to a very Delta way of doing comedy.”

The Greenwood Shakespeare Project is funded in part through a grant from the Mississippi Arts Commission.

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.