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‘lend me your ears’

Jaffrey-Rindge schools: Reflecting on more than two decades of staging the Bard’s words and ways

  • Conant High School junior Bekah Chiasson of Jaffrey, who plays Juliet, looks on as sophomore Nathan Rousseau of Jaffrey, who plays Othello, sings a solo during the musical portion of their classes' nontraditional Shakespearean play at a rehearsal last week.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)

    Conant High School junior Bekah Chiasson of Jaffrey, who plays Juliet, looks on as sophomore Nathan Rousseau of Jaffrey, who plays Othello, sings a solo during the musical portion of their classes' nontraditional Shakespearean play at a rehearsal last week.

    (Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)

  • Jaffrey-Rindge seventh grader Shanleigh Bosse of Jaffrey, left, eighth grader Lily Germano of Rindge and eighth grader Joe Wiley of Rindge rehearse a scene from Shakespeare's "King Lear," which their class will be performing an abridged version of at Friday's Jaffrey-Rindge Shakespeare Festival.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)

    Jaffrey-Rindge seventh grader Shanleigh Bosse of Jaffrey, left, eighth grader Lily Germano of Rindge and eighth grader Joe Wiley of Rindge rehearse a scene from Shakespeare's "King Lear," which their class will be performing an abridged version of at Friday's Jaffrey-Rindge Shakespeare Festival.

    (Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)

  • Jaffrey-Rindge seventh grader Shanleigh Bosse of Jaffrey, left, eighth grader Lily Germano of Rindge and eighth grader Joe Wiley of Rindge rehearse a scene from Shakespeare's "King Lear," which their class will be performing an abridged version of at Friday's Jaffrey-Rindge Shakespeare Festival.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)

    Jaffrey-Rindge seventh grader Shanleigh Bosse of Jaffrey, left, eighth grader Lily Germano of Rindge and eighth grader Joe Wiley of Rindge rehearse a scene from Shakespeare's "King Lear," which their class will be performing an abridged version of at Friday's Jaffrey-Rindge Shakespeare Festival.

    (Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)

  • Jaffrey-Rindge eighth grader Lily Germano of Rindge rehearses her role as King Lear at the middle school last week.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)

    Jaffrey-Rindge eighth grader Lily Germano of Rindge rehearses her role as King Lear at the middle school last week.

    (Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)

  • Jaffrey-Rindge eighth grader Lily Germano of Rindge rehearses her role as King Lear at the middle school last week.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)

    Jaffrey-Rindge eighth grader Lily Germano of Rindge rehearses her role as King Lear at the middle school last week.

    (Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)

  • 21st Annual Jaffrey-Rindge Shakespeare Festival at the Jaffrey Meetinghouse<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)

    21st Annual Jaffrey-Rindge Shakespeare Festival at the Jaffrey Meetinghouse

    (Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)

  • Jaffrey-Rindge Shakespeare Festival at the Jaffrey Meetinghouse<br/><br/>.

    Jaffrey-Rindge Shakespeare Festival at the Jaffrey Meetinghouse

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  • Conant High School junior Bekah Chiasson of Jaffrey, who plays Juliet, looks on as sophomore Nathan Rousseau of Jaffrey, who plays Othello, sings a solo during the musical portion of their classes' nontraditional Shakespearean play at a rehearsal last week.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)
  • Jaffrey-Rindge seventh grader Shanleigh Bosse of Jaffrey, left, eighth grader Lily Germano of Rindge and eighth grader Joe Wiley of Rindge rehearse a scene from Shakespeare's "King Lear," which their class will be performing an abridged version of at Friday's Jaffrey-Rindge Shakespeare Festival.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)
  • Jaffrey-Rindge seventh grader Shanleigh Bosse of Jaffrey, left, eighth grader Lily Germano of Rindge and eighth grader Joe Wiley of Rindge rehearse a scene from Shakespeare's "King Lear," which their class will be performing an abridged version of at Friday's Jaffrey-Rindge Shakespeare Festival.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)
  • Jaffrey-Rindge eighth grader Lily Germano of Rindge rehearses her role as King Lear at the middle school last week.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)
  • Jaffrey-Rindge eighth grader Lily Germano of Rindge rehearses her role as King Lear at the middle school last week.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)
  • 21st Annual Jaffrey-Rindge Shakespeare Festival at the Jaffrey Meetinghouse<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)
  • Jaffrey-Rindge Shakespeare Festival at the Jaffrey Meetinghouse<br/><br/>.

Every spring for the last 21 years, students of the Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative School District have put away their ever-new and multiplying electronics, and entered a world made vivid by the language of William Shakespeare.

A school district with annual bare bone budgets, it is in many ways far behind suburban schools with high-speed broadband access and computers at each student’s desk. However, what the Jaffrey-Rindge District does have to boast about is its low-tech, tried and true method of imparting literacy that Shakespeare himself enjoyed as a young student, playing with literature — in other words, acting. Since 1993, 200 to 300 students each year, from third graders to seniors in high school, celebrate the works of William Shakespeare at the Annual Jaffrey-Rindge Shakespeare Festival.

Bridging the divide

Jaffrey and Rindge are not affluent towns. Though the majority of the high school graduates enter the military or the workforce, a half dozen of them will attend top-tier colleges. While those students in the honors track classes attend plays in Boston at least once a year, others consider going to a mall 30 miles away as a big adventure. However, when scanning the faces in Conant High School’s cafeteria over the years, it is difficult to distinguish the more advantaged students.

A unique identity of a Conant kid has evolved, one that isn’t evident in fashion nor in who sits at whose lunch table. I would like to attribute the wonderful dynamic in Conant’s student body to the fact that sometime in almost every student’s school experience, he or she has collaborated on a piece for the Shakespeare Festival; and everyone knows it is genuinely cool to like Shakespeare at Conant. This collective literate self-image can be observed across the entire range of the high school cliques, the athletes, the techies, the geeks, the Goths and among the kids who have no where to belong. It is rooted in the spread of Shakespeare instruction throughout all grade levels, beginning as early as third grade, as students prepare for our annual event.

The Shakespeare Festival is a collaborative event that includes all four schools in the Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative School District. Though Shakespeare has been an integral part of Conant High School’s English curriculum for generations, the festival gives students of all grade levels an opportunity to study a single play each year for the purpose of production, and then exposes them to a variety of plays performed by students both younger and older than themselves. Involving children of varying ability levels in a theatrical event and exposing them to what is typically regarded as difficult text has resulted in an increased confidence and desire to read more. Today’s Common Core curriculum stresses that all teachers teach students how to access complex text. The teachers of Jaffrey-Rindge have been doing this through Shakespeare since 1993! When a child feels mastery of Shakespeare, he or she knows she can read anything. The world of the literate is broad indeed, and the Shakespeare Festival creates a home, a springboard, for journeys into entirely new worlds for the students of our district. Most importantly, it has given the communities of Jaffrey and Rindge an avenue to reveal all that is best in themselves: their pride in the arts and in local history.

“The Shakespeare Festival was just the sort of program the Jaffrey Chamber was looking for,” explains former chamber president Mark Bean, president of DD Bean Match Company. “We sought to fund an initiative that would better the community, while providing educational opportunities for the children in our schools.”

Mark graduated from our high school in 1974. “The Jaffrey I grew up [in],” he recalls, “had the reputation of being a small mill town with emphasis on the athletics, not academic endeavors.” This is despite the fact that his grandfather’s company instituted the Bean Foundation 70 years ago to “meet its obligation to the lives of its employees by funding opportunities for their advancement.” Until 1992, this foundation typically funded individual scholarship requests. However, the idea of a Shakespeare Festival gave the Bean Foundation a new focus for its philanthropy. Mark himself has watched all four of his children perform on the festival stage, sitting next to his mill workers, watching theirs. “It’s a wonderful democratizing event,” Mark said.

The venue

That first year, the festival was held in the only place in the school district large enough for all the performers: Pratt Auditorium, Conant’s gym. Frankly, it was six hours of torture. No one could be heard as the acoustics bounced off the walls strewn with athletic championship banners. As we all know, it is difficult for any audience to be quiet when they can’t tell what the actors are saying. Margaret Bean, Mark’s mother, attended the entire day and closed the day with a well-heard plea, “Shakespeare’s words must be heard.”

The proper venue is the biggest stumbling block for producing a district-wide Shakespeare Festival. It must be large enough for all of its performers and their audience as well as for the community at-large that comes and goes throughout the day. The student audience is limited to those directly involved with the festival, which truly makes the endeavor less intimidating for its actors. Everyone, 8-year-olds as well as 18-year-olds, are performing on the same stage; all are put on the same plane by Shakespeare’s plays. Restricting our audience to these students guarantees that all plays will receive no less than a compassionate applause. Typically the festival needs seats for 200 to 300 hundred students, not to mention a stage from which Shakespeare’s words can be heard.

It was the solution to this problem, which sealed the bond between the residents of upscale, colonial Jaffrey Center and their neighbors of Rindge and East Jaffrey. The Jaffrey Village Improvement Society suggested the colonial Meetinghouse.

Town historian, Robert Stephenson, describes the importance of the Meetinghouse to the town: “Most everyone in Jaffrey knows something of its history: That its frame went up on the day of the Battle of Bunker Hill…and that the workers could hear the sound of the cannon in far away Charlestown. That it was first a church and a place for town meeting, then it housed the town offices and the high school, then it sat largely unused. It is the town’s dearest possession.”

Since 1994, over 6,000 students have performed on the Meetinghouse stage, presenting their own interpretations of Shakespeare. “There was always a literary culture in our town,” says 1999 Conant graduate Amanda Veautour. “It was moving the Shakespeare Festival to the Meetinghouse that unearthed it. How many thousands of children have performed in costume on that historic stage? That stage, the Meetinghouse, now belongs to them. It is part of their collective memory.”

The Shakespeare Festival is certainly a part of the collective memory of Amanda’s family. Beginning with Amanda, one of the four Veautour-DiTomasso sisters has been in the festival since its inception until 2010, and their mother, Deb, has been to every one. Between the four of them, they have performed such roles as Hermione and the Bear in “Winter’s Tale,” Brakenbury and Anne in “Richard the Third,” both Romeo and Juliet, “Midsummer’s” Helena, Katherine and Tranio in “Shrew,” Princess Katherine in Henry the Fifth, Macduff, and Othello’s Emilia. Now this isn’t the aristocratic British Redgrave family, these are girls from Rindge, but Shakespeare belongs to these girls as much as it does to Vanessa and Lynn.

“There are so few arts programs that survive this long — that in itself shows its importance to the towns,” says Deb Veautour. “I am so proud of the program, I bring my parents every year, and the shows keep getting better. The kids in our district really get Shakespeare.”

Universal appeal

The festival created a bridge for another chasm in the district as well. High school English teacher Pat Barry, from Conant’s class of ’78 and former Rindge selectwoman, explains, “When I was in school, at least 25 percent of my classmates would be dismissed from class whenever a teacher played a movie. Many of my neighbors didn’t own a television and believed that all visual arts exposed children to sinful worldliness. Many of them had large families, over 10 children, so their abstaining from school activities really impacted the classroom climate. But over the years parents from my high school class couldn’t help but be excited about their own children’s engagement with Shakespeare. They became involved by helping them with their lines and costumes. With so many children, these parents learned a lot of Shakespeare themselves and eventually the festival became a part of their lives. Now my neighbors, these same classmates who were forbidden to watch a film in history class, come to the Meetinghouse each year to watch their grandchildren perform Shakespeare.”

According to 2006 graduate Marine Corporal Ethan Ketola, many members of his church had this distrust of the arts as he was growing up. Though his family didn’t have a television, they permitted their 13 children to participate in classroom activities. Ethan explains how his church community was won over to the Shakespeare Festival: “Since Shakespeare is a historic part of an English class, no one thought there was anything in his plays that could be objectionable. So many kids have been in the festival for so many years, many members of our church have always been in the audience. Almost everyone from my church has a relative performing at the Shakespeare Festival.”

When asked what impact the Shakespeare Festival had on him, he responded, “I hated school until Mr. Emerson got me to do Shakespeare in seventh grade. The language was similar to the King James Bible, so I really didn’t find it very difficult. I always enjoyed imitating people, and when I found out that I could memorize, I realized I could do something my brothers and sisters never did. It was scary, because I never dedicated myself to anything before, but even today I see how much it has helped me. It gave me the confidence and vocal skills to handle my job in Iraq as Marine liaison at the Joint Air Cargo Operation Terminal. I handled incoming equipment for all forces, and I really needed a big voice.”

Community support

With continuing contributions from area businesses and the Jaffrey Chamber of Commerce, we eventually were able to hire the Folger Shakespeare Library’s own Mistress of Revels Cam Magee to act as the festival’s emcee.

Cam is a resident actor with the Folger in Washington D.C., and has performed as the mistress of revels for its Secondary School Festival for over 20 years. She describes her experience in Jaffrey: “The Jaffrey-Rindge Shakespeare Festival is unique because it truly is a festival and not a competition. Because it is so inclusive age-wise, and so insular, and because it takes place in an historic place, it has become an integral part of the town’s fabric.” Continuing, she says, “Originally, most of the children from Jaffrey first came as part of Mrs. Novotny’s chorus and recorder ensemble when they were very young. They had the opportunity to watch their neighbors and siblings perform Shakespeare, which takes the fear out of it. Now, Shakespeare has become simply something these children do.”

The teachers

Besides tightening the reciprocal relationship between the community and the schools, the festival has created intellectual communities in classrooms as well as a community of colleagues. The participating staff members do so voluntarily, squeezing rehearsals into their language arts unit or by advising a Shakespeare Club that meets after school. Every one of us is hooked on Shakespeare, and all grew to love him because of the impact his words make in the mouths of our students.

“To me, the greatest part of being in the Shakespeare Festival,” says former middle school math teacher John Emerson, “is collaborating with the kids during rehearsals. I love seeing how joyful they look as they contribute ideas to the play. We’re really partners, collaborating on the same piece. I am always amazed at the festival each year how well they support the younger kids and how well they are supported by the high school kids.”

Aside from the joy of collaborating with our students, each teacher has a different approach in preparing for the festival.

Rindge third grade teacher Sue Crotto, describes hers: “I’m a cafeteria Shakespeare. I have four plays I rotate. My job is to get my students on stage with confidence. The language is hard at first, but when they start understanding the humor, they begin to add their own gestures and facial expressions, and then the play belongs to them, to all of us. Almost all the parents come to festival and they are shocked to see what their kids can do. The foundation is laid and the next thing you know, the fourth-fifth grade Shakespeare club is huge.”

Sue’s “cafeteria” menu includes “Hamlet,” “Tempest,” “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Twelfth Night.” Her scripts are cut from the Swan editions from their “Shakespeare and Young People” series.

The Rindge fourth and fifth grade Shakespeare club is run by Jerry Holmes, the P.E. teacher. “Every year I sit in the first row when Sue’s kids are performing, scouting the talent. As soon as we board the bus home, from the festival, I start thinking about next year and the great third grade actors I saw and how I can use them. Then I review Sue’s tape all summer long, looking for that talent. That’s how I found my Bolingbroke. ... He was awesome as Hamlet in Sue’s third-grade play.”

Jerry’s club is currently rehearsing “Richard the Second.” This will be the 12th year that Jerry’s club participates in the festival and he spends the summer cutting scripts from lesser known plays, including “Two Gentlemen from Verona,” “Cymbeline,” “Richard the Third,” “A Winter’s Tale” and “The Merry Wives of Windsor.”

“The writing is excruciating, but I really love watching the kids being successful on stage. It’s also great seeing kids who started with me still performing in high school,” Jerry says.

In 2006, Superintendent of Schools Jim O’Neill included the festival in the district’s annual budget. “My role is to encourage teachers to innovate and be excited about what they teach. When I arrived in 2000, I could see how the festival unified the community in one historical site for a day of celebration of Shakespeare. My task was to make a teacher and community initiative systemic by allocating it a permanent line item and selling it to the board. Now, no one questions the $1,000 allocation for the Shakespeare Festival. Everyone knows it is integral to the entire communities of Jaffrey and Rindge, not just to our curriculum. This area’s summer arts tradition, the cultural values of our community, has been vested in our schools, and the Shakespeare Festival is our opportunity to contribute to these values in a site that has historic significance. The financial investment may be small, but the return is priceless.”

Marjorie Margolis is a recently retired teacher from Conant High School who started the Shakespeare Festival in 1993; she is currently serving as the festival’s interim coordinator. The 22nd annual festival will take place on May 30 at the Jaffrey Meetinghouse, and is as always open to the public. Look for schedule details in a forthcoming edition of the Ledger-Transcript.

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