Sunday, January 11, 2015

My All the World!

I was asked by our beloved BFF Joshua Stavros, to write this blog for the Utah Shakespeare Festival (USF). I've had a blast doing it - thanks for asking Josh, it was a privilege!

I was born and raised as an actor/teacher/director at SUU/USF and this is the least I could do. I'm indebted to the careful training that I received at Southern Utah University under the tutelage of Doug Baker, Scott Phillips, Gary MacIntyre and Fred Adams. It was Gary Mac that actually said the words "you are a gifted director," to my face and I never turned back. (The power of a teacher!!!! I'll never forget it. )Those were the Golden Years for sure! SUU is still blessed with an amazing theatre department. I love that place so much. 

There was another student there with me at the time and he continues to create and produce the largest high school Shakespeare competition in the nation. 

Michael Bahr doing what he does best - giving
away scholarships!

This is for you Michael Bahr. 


I am following a bus to Cedar City today. I’m riding behind in my car because the bus is full. Full of “classically trained actors” they will tell you, though more than half of them have only been speaking Shakespeare for about a month. But if you looked at the rehearsal calendar you might bestow that title on them…they have worked as hard on these competition pieces as they have on a full-length musical.

Because there is a casket, two columns, 8 acting blocks and 45 pieces of luggage under the bus, my car is full of costumes. 45 Greek himations, 80 fibulae, 40 tunics and dresses. When we are fully dressed we look like were about to go to a toga party but really we’re about to go to a funeral for Julius Caesar. We didn’t get permission from the district to put weapons on the bus. So I have one broadsword, one rapier, two daggers, a quart of fake blood and a glue gun (just in case someone ask) in a box behind me somewhere. I’m totally prepared in case I get car-jacked along the way. Not only could I defend myself in a Medieval kind of way, I could really make it look good post fight. The police would be so confused.

I am recording this blog into the memo app on my phone as I drive. There are R.V.’s passing us. A billboard announcing the fall season at Tuacahn. Las Vegas shows we could go and see. Instead, what are we doing? We are chaperoning 55 kids at a Shakespeare competition. Who does that? I mean, who gives up a prime fall weekend to go watch teenagers do some 500 year-old Shakespeare and why is it my favorite weekend of the year? I need to get out more.

How did this madness begin?

Back in 2001, I had the rare opportunity to take a group of Lehi High School students to Edinburgh, Scotland to perform a play. We chose to do Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors set in our home town circa 1840: the Wild West. The American High School Theatre Festival (the company that had given us the honor of performing at the Fringe Festival) wasn’t quite sure a bunch of American high school kids should be bringing Shakespeare “back to the motherland.”

“The American kids usually do musicals,” they told me, “or devised pieces. We’ve seen some brilliant original pieces.” But didn’t we have to bring in an audience, I asked? I was pretty sure, that a Shakespearean Shootout on the Royal Mile would be more diverse than the overload of mimes and more entertaining than the musical version of The Crucible I had seen the summer before.

We carried on with our plan: A Wild west Comedy of Errors – every word of it beautifully delivered Shakespeare (without mics), complete with non-sensical saloon girls, 100+ Hanna- Barberra cartoon sound effects, and a hang man’s platform and noose that one of our dad’s concocted to fit in a piece of luggage made of a 4 X 4 and hinges. That was a heavy piece of luggage. We paid extra for that.

It cost us $4000 per kid/adult to go on this trip and raising that money was tough. But putting the show together might have been tougher. We rehearsed at six o’clock every morning in the summer so that the kids could go to work after rehearsal to earn money. Once the show was ready we toured it to earn more money.
The highlight of the entire trip for me came on the very first day. We were on a river cruise down the Thames in London. We had each been given a set of headphones and a box lunch. I could not keep my eyes open. I had not slept in months. As we cruised down the Thames the voice in the headphones was enlightening us about the magnificent city of London, which to me, looked a lot like New York, a giant canyon of concrete with its financial fury and business hubbub. Our heads would turn simultaneously left, then right, wherever the voice directed our attention. We had been traveling for about 16 hours and we were facing a soggy, gray cruise ride with an egg salad sandwich when what we really needed was a bed.

Then, the voice said “To your right you will see the famed Shakespearean Globe Theatre…” and I don’t know what else it said after that. We all turned our heads to the right and nobody turned left after that until it was out of sight. Nearly all of us started crying “straightaway” as the Brits would say. I sobbed long and hard. It was the first time in months that I felt fully awake. 

The Globe Theatre from the Thames, 2001
Because the tour company was afraid that a little high school from the American West had stubbornly brought Shakespeare back to his people, we had been “given the opportunity” to perform a few pieces of our show for some of the actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company the next day at the Globe itself. (I think it was a last ditch effort to save us in case we were horrible. I cried when we walked into the building. Then shaking their hands…then watching my kids perform, I was still crying.) These RSC actors were astonished at the talent. They couldn’t believe it. They sent us off with a laugh. “You sound like seasoned professionals,” they said. “How is it done at such an early age, and with Americans?” they asked me.

“Well,” I said confidently, “there’s this annual competition...”

Each October, more than a 100 keen drama teachers from several states make a pilgrimage to Cedar City, Utah to participate in The Utah Shakespeare Festival / Southern Utah University Shakespeare Competition. It has been happening since 1977, just 15 years into the Festival itself, when Provo High School’s drama teacher at the time, Ray Jones, convinced USF founder Fred Adams to hold a Shakespeare competition. At least that’s how I remember the story as it was told to me.

I am writing this blog as a tribute to the Festival for what it has done for me and my student these past 30 (ah, hem!) plus years that I have participated in this unique experience first as a high school student myself, then helping to run it as a college student and finally 23 times as a coach.

For the past 30 years I have watched the last of the vacationing R.V.’s race past us toward the majestic canyons of Southern Utah as our team wobbles South down Interstate 15 in an old familiar “yellow dog” full of 12 to 18 year-olds repeating pieces of Shakespeare in preparation for this, their “favorite weekend of the year.” My husband and I are not spending the last warm weekend in Utah vacationing! Bah! We can vacation anytime. This weekend we have the honor of watching thousands of kids grab hold of Shakespeare to spend the rest of their lives seeking him out. We get the privilege of witnessing the finale of the grand transformation – from Shakespearean scaredy cats to Kings and Queens of the Canon. Wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Hey, is that Lewis from King John drinking a
Coke in the Sharwan Smith Center?
Nope...just Matt Nott between rounds.

It’s an expensive, time intensive and all-consuming event. But I would not be anywhere else. In fact, in 2011, I had emergency retina surgery the day before we performed on the Adams stage and was under strict doctor’s orders not to lift my head for more than 15 minutes a day. The next day, I bribed my in-laws to drive me to Cedar City and I used my fifteen minutes to watch our scene compete. If you have been involved in this competition for any number of years you know why I did it. I’ve gone from bringing 20 students a year to well over 100. For actors, technicians, dancers and musicians, it’s a magical weekend (and somehow they don’t even know how much they are learning.)

Richard III, the living and the dead, Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts, 2013

Mistress Quickly with a mouth full of braces!
Turned out to be a very successful coach of her own
teams years later.

Some of my dearest friends are tournament officials that I have loved 30 years since I was a student there myself. I get the opportunity to throw my arms around Fred Adams and Scott Phillips who brought me up in the theatre and are still there and are now throwing their arms around my students. I’m like a homing pigeon to this place. They will be too someday.

I get to see my theatre teacher colleagues. They are some of my closest friends. I understand exactly what they are going through. We chose this profession but we still do it! Some of the people I respect most in the world are teachers and artists from other schools who also follow

Mindy Young and I (2005?)
their kids around with a bag of safety pins in their pocket (pretty sure it's required.) I know their spouses; I've been to their children's weddings. We've commiserated and communed as coaches behind the Adams Shakespearean Theatre now for more than 20 years. This weekend in October is all hallowed and marks the beginning of the theatre school year for us. We wouldn’t think of doing anything else. I love these people so much. I feel somehow that Shakespeare himself wanders around back here and knows us and is proud of us for teaching. (“Wish he was teaching a master class…” I often say to myself.)
For me the love of all things Shakespeare started when I was a Senior in high school in 1982 when I first attended the competition as Lady Macbeth. My mom made me and my scene partner long matching green capes. I still have them (of course I do.) They had arm holes so I could thrust my arms out and call upon the dark and scream “Come thick night! And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell…” Words I hardly understood then. Words I have coached a dozen times since. 

Jan as Lady M and
Gary Wilson as Macbeth, 1983!!!
I love that we had our name tags on
in this picture.

I instantly fell in love with SUU that year though I had been on its campus many times for debate competitions, it was the “magic” of the Shakespeare Competition that brought me to my knees pleading to God to help me find scholarship money at “SUSC” (and not have to debate at BYU!)

What is the magic, exactly? I mean it isn’t Disneyland but there’s something about this experience that has 3000 students and teachers cracking open a 500 year-old collection of plays and traveling to remote Cedar City, eating fast food for three days and getting boys to wear tights year after year. I believe we keep doing it for several reasons.

The works of Wm. Shakespeare have become so important to the
teachers of Utah, that the year USF didn't hold the competition
the teachers pooled their free time to organize it
and Tuacahn graciously hosted. The boy on the far right is
Joshua Long, who has since coached many
award-winning teams of his own. The girl with the gold
vest has a Shakespeare degree and lives in London!

First and foremost, it happens at the top of the year and an overnight trip binds the kids together in a team. And this is not a team for sissies. NO! There is no Neil Simon spoken here. “You must learn to elongate your vowels, throw your voice to the balcony, develop your belly muscles for breathing, remember your word endings, open your throat, your eyes, your brain and your body all at the same time while understanding ancient vocabulary and in a completely new order. Sometimes. But it means the same thing so just talk to us.” Yeah, right.

So I changed my mind. First and foremost, great Shakespeare training changes our kids into conquerors of the English language and authorities over the text, masters over their body and disciples of the stage. And they do it ON A TEAM. All for one. After the Shakespeare experience, they are mine, and he is theirs. The rest of the year is easy.

So apart from teaching a kid how to conquer and analyze the Shakespearean text…the next thing I love is that it teaches a kid how to work hard at the beginning of the year. It sets a standard early on. That means so much to me as a teacher!!! They go to greater lengths to choose a piece with a greater level of difficulty, read the entire play and dig for character and motivations, they project the levels and layers of the character very carefully, all of those things paint a picture of a student that goes above and beyond what they would do in class work. Let’s be real! I don’t get that kind of work on a monologue in class…ever! I never get that pay off in class, not even for region or state competitions! BUT, I do for the Shakespeare competition and then I have a reference point by which they can judge their work ethic for the rest of the year.

Robert Axson as Gobbo - 9th grade!
He took First Place. Now he works for
Senator Mike Lee.
I also love this competition because it’s the best judging the kids will hear all year. I still remember the words of actress Liisa Ivary who was my judge in the Thorley Recital Hall all those years ago. She said “When you have two identical words back to back, you have to make each of them sound differently.” Those two words were “Hold, hold!” I can’t remember what I ate yesterday, but I can remember what the brilliant Liisa Ivary said to me in 1982. I’ve used that piece of advice on my own students ever since.

Hold, HOLD! I firmly believe it was because of that Shakespeare competition in 1982 that I returned to campus and got my degree in theatre there. I believe that’s why the trophies have so much value…AND YET…we haven’t always won…still I feel every year we return victorious. It’s the magic! Does that mean we return with the plastic trophies on our bus? NO. No, no, nhho. noooo..nope….no! (I’m trying to vary them, as I type.)


But would they if the competition didn’t exist?


Every year my kids have conquered a thing otherwise unconquerable without the platform of the competition to push and challenge them. They return with an admiration of the Bard I cannot explain. They come home wearing his face on their 
There's even a contest for the techies! (2002)
clothing, his words in their heart. They have somehow given him a “high five” across the perpetuities. They are no longer afraid of his words, they are peer and patrician. They have participated in the time honored ritual that brings them into the brotherhood of the highest of all Shakespeare fraternities. Whether or not they have a trophy in hand, there are never tears, and this the strangest thing of all…because there are never losers at this competition (I’m not sure how they do it but I think it has to do with the fact that it so darn difficult!) but every kid leaves having had the time of their life and trying to figure out what monologue they are going to do for auditions next year so they can come back. 
Cole a lighting professor and professional designer

Next year!!! Ah! I must remember to reserve my hotel rooms for next year!

I digress…

I guess I can say that the last things I love about the competition is that they offer a great number of scholarships to actors and technicians. I have personally witnessed my students shaking their way back up the stairs, grinning from ear to ear as their dream of going to SUU has become a reality.

I love that the Shakespeare Festival honors one of their former actors, Larry Lott, by giving a scholarship to an exceptional high school student actor. My favorite memory of all Shakespeare Competitions happened in 1996 and again in 1999. My own brother, Brad, won the Larry Lott award first as a 9th Grader when we were at Mt. Ridge Jr. High together and then as Henry V at Lehi High School after I was transferred there. It was hard to cast Brad politically, but he was a very capable and gifted classical actor; he just got it (and he could grow a full beard in about three minutes.)

This is my ALL TIME favorite picture, even though it is blurry and pixilated. THIS IS THE MOMENT! Gloucester (Brad) getting stabbed by Clifford (Davy)! These boys became best of friends through this process. Between them they have at least 8 children - I'm not sure who is standing behind Davy, was it Patrick?
When they called his name for the award I almost passed out. Both times. When he came back up to the crowd he came straight to me and hugged me and thanked me for making him work so hard. He treated me like his respected teacher and not his sister. Brad didn’t end up studying classical acting, but Brad will tell you that the first weekend of October is STILL his favorite weekend of the year and he wishes with all his heart that he could still compete even though, Brad actually works at Disneyland! They can’t even compete with the magic of Cedar City.
1999.  Waiting for the awards ceremony to begin.
Brad Shelton, (left) builds Disneyland at Disneyland,
Beth Sharon (center) now a full-time mom
Dr. Nathan Miller (right) a medical doctor in the U.S. Navy

When recently polled, my former students agreed without 

hesitation, that “Shakepeare Weekend” changed their lives. No matter what they ended up doing with their lives, they have an unfailing love for Shakespeare to this day because of their connection to this event.

When trying to bring Shakespeare to the masses, change
it upa bit, I always say! You knew there were three diner
waitresses in Coriolanus, didn't you?
(Wendy is center)

Another significant human contribution that came to the competition through one of my teams was Wendy Milam Penrod. Wendy now runs one of the largest Improvisation Festivals during the Shakespeare weekend in the nation for high school kids. Wendy was “one of mine.” Uh huh. Really though, she is one of Shakespeare’s. I take no credit, it’s the magic.

Andy Hunsaker now hosts our annual
department fundraiser "Feaste!" to showcase
the Shakespeare pieces, songs and dances
that will travel to compete. 
I should also mention my husband, Andy Hunsaker, who competed at the Shakespeare Festival when he was a Senior at American Fork High School and immediately fell in love with SUU. He performed a monologue from Merchant of Venice: “…Hath not a Jew eyes, hands…?” Andy went on to go to school at SUU, he spent six summers as an actor with the Shakespeare Festival and they eventually grandfathered him into the Actors Equity Association. He now teaches high school where he coaches award-winning Shakespeare teams and sends his best students back to SUU by the DOZEN. It’s only right. 

Fortune telling at a party hosted by Steve Wynn in Vegas.
The creator was Doug Baker (standing next to me, second from
left. I had forgotten that the Queen was there too. ;-)

I stole the Feaste idea from Doug Baker who is a beloved friend and was my acting professor at SUU. He used to create these huge Feastes for Las Vegas casino high rollers parties. The money was used for scholarships. I wish they still did this! (They need to give out more scholarships!) Andy also played Henry VIII at USF and between the two of us, we combined our past knowledge of the two and created something that can easily be done with a high school Shakespeare company. I'm writing the script and instructions for my TeachersPayTeachers website right now at Jan's Store - Get Your Shakespeare Cuttings Here . Should be up and running shortly.

So, I’ve just about said it all. Except that one last thing; that ONE all-encompassing thing that I will never be able to repay the Utah Shakespeare Festival for all it has done for my students. I want them to know this one simple story before I close. This is the reason I will never be able to stop bringing kids to the USF/SUU Shakespeare Competition and this is why they can never stop holding it. (I’ve had to change the names for privacy purposes.)

Matthew was a student of ours (Andy and I) that had pretty severe autism. His mom warned us when he came in as a Ninth grader that he wanted to be in drama so badly but his contribution would be small. “Not to worry,” she said, “you are making a difference, but you might never know it. It will be hard. Please persevere.” Of course we did.

Well, we always cast a kid if he has the grades to compete. So Matthew always got cast. Besides that, he was a boy. A TALL boy. His mom said he would never be able to memorize anything and his Freshman audition was the definition of tragedy. He read every word off the paper. Still, we didn’t understand a word of it. He cried when it was over and we hugged him until he stopped. Drama One. Two. Passed every class with flying colors. Because he was a tall boy, he got some kind of role in every play and he started memorizing out of necessity, after all he was at a school where the boy to girl ratio was 5:1. Late in Matthew’s junior year we needed him to take a big role. He wanted it so badly. When he wasn’t working on stage with Andy he would be sent backstage to me. His mother and sister worked with him day and night. He paced backstage with his sister and his script every performance and one day it just…clicked. She walked away and said “he doesn’t need me back there anymore.” Over the summer between his junior and senior year, he worked to prepare his Shakespeare audition. On the third day of school he walked into that audition and took the stage but there was no paper in his hands, no shaking, no apologies. It was breath-taking.

          “I have almost forgot the taste of fears;
          The time has been, my senses would have cool’d
          To hear a night-shriek…
          …out, out, brief candle!
          Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
          That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
          And then is heard no more; it is a tale
          Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
          Signifying nothing.

I burst into tears. I was instantly swept back into the memory of Matthew’s journey. I cried all night. Matt now studies acting at SUU and will one day teach drama to individuals with learning challenges. Preparing kids to do well at the annual Shakespeare Competition is a joy and they will all tell you that it changed their lives. It brought bonded them together and set the tone for their high school experience.

Coaching is my only real skill. It’s the only thing I have 100% confidence in, passion for. I give that to my kids I think. They in turn use that their whole lives and pass it on in turn. The time I spend working out the vowels, consonants and motivations, the meaning of the text, breaking vocal habits, breaking down walls...I would not have discovered this if it wasn’t for the Shakespeare Competition every October. That time I spend with kids is my joy, my work, "my all the world."

It's purely selfish...I really just do it for the hugs!
Well, I’m about to pull into Cedar City. I just passed a billboard that said the casinos in Mesquite are open for business and that I can still get tickets for the musicals at Tuacahn where it is still 90 degrees and wouldn’t that be fun? Not as fun as watching my kids kill a Shakespeare scene. Not as fun as that!



My first team as a coach. The girl holding the placard is Christie Gardner who played Charity Barnum for me last summer! Every face has a thousand memories connected to it!! I LOVED this team. I love them all! I dream of going back to a junior high program. After 24 years I can truly say, "that was my bliss."

This is my brother Brad as Henry or
Gloucester - I forget - but we always
costume the kids full out because I
believe the costume really pushes them
to know who the characters are. Kids need the
costume. And I want to thank MAMA KAY
(to the right of this pic) for the YEARS of
sewing she has done to put the kids in top

My mom (MAMA KAY!) sitting (and freezing in the
Adams Theatre) next to Stewart Shelley before he became an
award-winning coach himself and was just chaperoning for me.
I have asked my parents to chaperone more times that they
actually wanted to.
PAPA JOE! (My dad) I think he may have loved the trophy more than
I did. Because he chaperoned so much, he knows how much
work it is.

Becky! Bless her heart she was the only one
that volunteered to learn how to tie knots
for tech Olympics. This girl saved my
life for four years. Now she's a famous
stage manager in NYC!
Lacy and Ben - two of the best high school actors that I have
ever known. Literally. This is the Merry Wives scene we
did one month after we got home from Scotland! (First Place!)
We were very tired of Shakespeare needless to say. 

Winters Tale! Lehi High, HyeSoo and Caleb. I will never be able to repeat that combination. It was perfect!
Ammon and Emilie from Othello. Scarrrrrrry and perfect.
Look at the intensity on those two faces! First Place!
THANKS KYLE COOK for the throne in the background!
Emilie is now a coach herself!
One look at Crystal's face (chaperone front right corner) and I can tell this is the bus ride HOME.
Is that 14 year-old Josh Long on that bus?

WAY TO GO - SHAKES TEAMS 1992 - 2014!