Home Arts A Labor of Love: Teaching Shakespeare To Middle-School Students at U-32

A Labor of Love: Teaching Shakespeare To Middle-School Students at U-32

U-32 Theater students, happy and relieved after a performance for the whole middle school. Photo courtesy of Peter Gould.
By Peter Gould

I have recently completed a ten-day residency in Shakespeare — study, voice training, scene blocking, rehearsal, and performance — with about 50 middle school students at U-32 high up on Gallison Hill Road.

 I founded and still run Get Thee to the Funnery, a Shakespeare camp deep in the Northeast Kingdom, for kids in Greensboro, Hardwick, Craftsbury, and beyond. We’ve been doing this labor of love for 25 years. So I wanted to report to readers of The Bridge about how well this labor and this love turned out in the welcoming space of U-32 Middle and High School.

 After 40 years performing and teaching theater in every corner of Vermont, I keep returning to the opinion I formed when I first worked here, teaching alongside the unforgettables, Liz Snell and Joanne Greenberg. (Montpelier High School: I’ll get to you later this semester, I’m sure, but I have found no other secondary school anywhere in the Green Mountains that rivals U-32.)

 I want to commend the entire staff for working together to make a space of acceptance, dedication, and creativity. You can feel the vibe as soon as you walk into the big open area just inside the safe and secure main doorway. You can tell by students’ body language that they enjoy hanging out with each other under the tall, light ceilings. It’s never been as important as it is now, for our state and our communities, to provide an interior space of comfort and understanding in which our teen-aged students can do their growing. There is so much discord, so much bad news, in the air we breathe outside. 

 And Shakespeare! I found the students amazingly open to making the Bard’s words sing again, open to breathing new life into characters such as Romeo and Juliet and Tybalt and the Nurse and all the others, who can be weighed down by their four hundred years of age if not buoyed up by irrepressible young hearts and voices. 

 All credit must be given to U-32’s great theater teacher, Erin Galligan-Baldwin, who has stepped into the shoes of Liz and Joanne and made their footwear dance around the stage again. She loves young people; you can see that in her eyes as she engages them. They in turn respect her and want to do well in her classes and productions. It’s often said that students benefit from being taught by working artists, not just by instructors. Erin has had recent success with her original writing; her last play premiered at Lost Nation Theater, and now a new one is nearly ready, still being completed — by the actors themselves — on topics that challenge her actors and audiences. 

 My recent work with Erin’s students, and my discussions with her fans, have taught me that you can really raise the bar for middle and high school students. Be open, accepting, challenging, original, firm, clear, appreciative, and fun: there are surprising heights to reach for and achieve. I hope the greater Montpelier community knows what a wonderful hive of artists and scholars is hard at work up on that hill.

 Peter Gould is a Vermont writer and theater director. He was the U-32 high school Commencement Speaker sometime in the early 2000s, and stays in Montpelier regularly.