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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, February 4, 2010

Kids in the Electronic Age speak the words of the Bard

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

ALTAMONT — Maddie Jerominek has been standing outside of her home, even in this bitter cold weather, to scream.

“It has to be a blood-curdling scream,” she says, “so I go out in the snow and practice.”

With a small smile and shrug, she adds, “The neighbors say, ‘What’s the matter?’”

Nothing is the matter.

As a fifth-grader at Altamont Elementary School, Maddie is practicing for her role as Lady Macbeth.

The work of William Shakespeare isn’t something distant and tedious for Maddie and her classmates; it is vivid and real. The Elizabethan world was in the midst of a transition from oral tradition to the printed word. The Bard came down on the side of living language — the spoken word on stage.

The fifth-graders at Altamont Elementary have memorized those words and now are making them their own. The 400 years between the first production of The Tragedy of Macbeth and the one to be staged next week in Altamont forms no barrier for the kids who will take the stage.

They have different takes on the story of the Scottish thane who, with a vaulting ambition to be king, is goaded by his wife to murder. Some of the young actors see the play as an action-packed drama while others see it as a way to understand the ravages of conscience. It is both.

Some of the boys delight in the swordplay. Some of the girls, playing the prophesizing witches, eagerly recite their lines as they hold up their macabre props for a visitor to admire.

This will be the school’s 20th Shakespearean play; the very first one was also Macbeth.

Fifth-graders — with the help of their parents and teachers as well as consultant Christine Saplin from the New York State Theatre Institute — take on everything from costumes and sound effects to scenery and acting.

Kate Johnston, who has never been in a play before, was looking forward to being in this one; it is part of a tradition.

“My brother is three years older than me,” said Kate. “He was in Macbeth. He was one of the guests. I was really looking forward to it,” she said of being in the play.

Kate plays the part of a gentlewoman who looks after Lady Macbeth. “She’s having nightmares, and she’s so guilty, she’s sleepwalking, talking in her sleep. I call the doctor to see if he can help. She confesses.”

Taylor Biek plays another gentlewoman. “It’s a real honor to be in the play,” Taylor said. “Everybody has been fitted for their right parts.”

“I didn’t mind what part I got,” said Amanda Smith who plays a servant. “It’s just that I could be part of the play. You get to be part of something bigger than yourself.”

“You learn so much”

Saplin, who works with a lot of kids on plays, says it is unusual for elementary students to put on a Shakespearean play, particularly using the original Elizabethan language, rather than a modernized script.

“That’s what’s so exciting,” she said. “They’re involved and exposed to Shakespeare.”

Echoing those sentiments, Maddie Jerominek said, “I think it’s really exciting to be able to act in a play like this.” She went on, “I especially like the scene where I get to scream.”

Maddie is looking forward to next Tuesday, Feb.  9, when the entire school will fill the gym-turned-auditorium for the performance. Parents and the community will see the play on Wednesday evening.

Maddie sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the stage last week, intently watching other students rehearse. She said that performing doesn’t make her nervous.

“I would like to be an actor,” Maddie said of her career aspirations. She takes dance lessons — jazz and hip-hop — and she performed in small plays at The Academy of the Holy Names where she used to go to school.

“This is a really big play,” she said of Macbeth. “It’s a real honor to be picked for this part.”

Maddie went on, describing the audition process, “We all auditioned for the two fifth-grade teachers,” she said of Kathy Perry and Karen Shaffer. “We found out right before Christmas vacation…I called my mom and said, ‘Guess what part I got?’ She was so excited.”

The hard work began soon after.  “It’s the most I’ve ever had to memorize,” said Maddie.

Learning her lines — she shares the role with another student, Tessa Buckey — took about a week, she said. Once Maddie had the lines down pat, she could concentrate on their meaning.

Maddie described her favorite scene: “Lady Macbeth is talking in her sleep about the crimes she committed. She sees blood on her hands when it’s not really there.”

Maddie likes that scene for its drama and because, she said, “I think it’s the way you would feel if you did something that bad.”

Other than the insight she’s gained about her character, Maddie likes the social aspects of working on the production with all of her classmates. Referring to Kevin Greene who plays Macbeth opposite her, she said, “Me and Kevin would not be with each other. It’s not like we’re best friends. If it weren’t for the play, I would never have known Kevin was a good actor….You learn so much about people.”

Maddie also likes the last scene she’s in. “I’ve never died in a play before,” she said.

“The best part”

Unlike Maddie, Kevin Greene had no stage aspirations before he got his part. “I was surprised, actually,” he said.

While Maddie’s favorite subject is reading, Kevin’s is math. He likes all kinds of sports and plays both baseball, in the Pine Bush Little League, and basketball, with the Catholic Youth Organization.

Kevin’s career goal? “I’m hoping to be a Major League baseball player,” he said.

Both Kevin and his friend Devin DeCotes, the other student playing Macbeth, are avid Yankees fans and both wore shirts at last week’s rehearsal, stating their allegiance.

Kevin found that learning all his lines — “I have a lot,” he said — was hard work, but worth it. “I worked every night in my bedroom,” he said, “My mom helped. It was confusing at first. But I’ve learned them now so it sounds good.”

He also said that it was hard to learn to “speak up loud enough so everyone can hear.”

Now that he’s got the lines and their delivery down, Kevin said, “The acting is really fun, putting different emotions into it. I have to show a lot of anger and confusion.”

Asked about his favorite scene, Kevin said without a moment’s hesitation, “That’s the one where me and Macduff have a sword fight….The director taught us attacks and blocks. We do the sword-under-the-armpit thing. That’s the best part.”

Kevin admits he is a bit concerned about performing before a packed house. “I think about it and get kind of nervous,” he said. “Then I think of the good parts and it just kind of goes away.”

“Cool to be somebody else”

The three witches set the stage for the fate that will befall Macbeth. Actresses Alyssa LiVecchi, Maria Mawson, and Shannon Blakeley play their parts with great gusto.

The rehearsals are long and frequent — four times a week after school — but the girls look forward to them.

“It’s not like on the playground, but it’s fun,” said Shannon.

“When I first found out I was going to be a witch, I was sort of creeped out,” said Maria. “But my mom said it was a good part for me…Now, I really like it. I love the props.”

The girls were enthusiastic about displaying those props — ranging from the thumb of a sailor’s wife, modeled of papier-mâché, to a wiggly snake fashioned from rubber.

“I like it when we put all the creepy animal things into the caldron,” said Shannon.

“I have a fillet of fenny snake, an eye of newt, a toe of frog, wool of bat, and tongue of dog,” said Alyssa.

The girls are also excited that a smoke machine will send billows from their big black caldron.

Beyond the props, they like the acting. “It feels cool to be somebody else,” Shannon said. “When you’re on the stage, you’re not yourself anymore.”

The actresses prove her point as, moments later, they take to the stage in their role as witches. They gyrate and cackle about their caldron. Their words erupt as mystic chants when, suddenly, an apparition bursts from their kettle.

“I pop out of the caldron,” Eric Burby said earlier about why he likes playing the apparition. “I scare Macbeth and he backs up and pulls out his sword.”

On stage now, Kevin Greene, wearing a regal crown, swiftly draws his sword. He strikes a pose with bravado, a look of wariness in his eyes.

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