Asked why he produces Shakespearean plays with 12- to 16-year-olds, Bob Davis moves forward in his chair, digs in his feet and speaks with forceful elegance. "With Shakespeare, the language and the emotion are bigger. For kids to learn Shakespeare’s words, it’s a constant string of revelations. They develop a whole different relationship with language," he said.
Eight years ago, Davis and his wife Mary Alette Davis were working as professional actors and raising three boys in Kingfield. Frustrated by the lack of theatre programs for kids, they started their own — Brazil! School of the Arts.
For the past five years, they’ve produced a Shakespearean play every summer with roughly 20 kids from Kingfield, Lyndale, Kenwood, Seward and Powderhorn.
"We started Brazil! because we saw a need to introduce Shakespeare to kids – to give them a chance to really learn a play. And since we know plenty of out-of-work actors, the kids learn from the best actors in town," said Davis.
He added, "One year, the Guthrie was doing ‘Mid-summer Night’s Dream’ at the same time we were. So their Oberon came in and coached the 12-year-old girl who played our Oberon."
Each summer, the couple starts by cutting the length of a Shakespearean work to about an hour. They say they don’t simplify the language or change the story. The three-week program has no auditions and gives the students several days to memorize their lines. "We capitalize on the adolescent," said Davis.
"The first thing we always do is have the kids put every line into their own words, so they know what they are saying. They’ll have to go back to memorize the original language, but they translate in order to understand the meaning of the words," he said.
Davis said that once the kids understand the meaning of what they say, they have little trouble memorizing. He said the words become part of their everyday vocabulary.
"They start singing Shakespeare lines around the house instead of the Oscar Meyer wiener song," said Davis. "The language has a rhythm that settles into their system. We don’t tell them that its iambic pentameter."
Megan Sutter, an 11-year-old who lives in Lynnhurst, is in this year’s production of "The Tempest." She said it took her two days to translate the lines into American English, but she doesn’t mind Shakespeare’s bulky language.
"I love the plays. I like the old English language and the time period," said Sutter.
Every year, Mary Alette Davis watches kids as they change with Shakespeare’s characters. "You see what kind of power the kids have. One year, a shy 13-year-old boy played Macbeth – and watching him walk on stage with his hands awash in blood, you could tell that he believed, and the part transformed him," said Alette Davis.
While Shakespeare’s language is not altered, the kids are encouraged to find the characters for themselves. The actors often design their own costumes and the set — focusing the production on how the kids interpret the language and their relationship with each other. This year the kids will become part of the set design. "We’re going to be doing this thing where everybody will be on stage hiding in bags and be a part of the scene. I’ll be part of a cave when the others will be acting in front of the cave," said Sutter.
This year’s production of "The Tempest" will play Thursday-Saturday July 25-27; 7 p..m. with a 10:30 a.m. performance on Friday. All performances are free and at Hobart United Methodist Church, 100 W. 46th St.
Call 822-4140 for more information.