Arts Alert: Project Shakespeare

A local children's company tackles the Bard

For Deborah Shakespeare Thurber, founder and artistic director of Project Shakespeare, there are no better stories and no better characters than the ones found within the scripts of William Shakespeare. Contrary to the common conception that Shakespeare’s works are approachable only by an older, educated population, Thurber believes children as young as four can learn from and love the famous verses of iambic pentameter.

Twenty-three years ago, as a thesis for her masters in theater education, Thurber created Project Shakespeare incorporating the educational aspect of drama and the performance art of theater. More than two decades later, the Project now includes summer plays and year-round educational programs in both public and home schools and programs during breaks.

“The stories are what every other story is founded on,” Thurber said. “The themes that he talks about are the same things that are being discussed in contemporary drama, then there is the beautiful poetic language aspect of it.”

After moving to various locations in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, Project Shakespeare now resides in Jaffrey. A three-year partnership with the United Church of Jaffrey gives the directors and actors a home base to teach, perform and create, but Thurber finds her shows are most successful when they are performed in various communities throughout the Granite State.

“Every setting, every architecture feeds something into the storyline, so for my students, touring to these places is like a brand new opening night every single night,” Thurber said.

Project Shakespeare’s Summer Season began this year on July 1 and consists of eight double-bill shows, the final performance closing the season on August 6. This summer’s Main Stage performance, performed by young adults ages 13 to 18, is “Romeo and Juliet,” directed by Thurber herself. Project Shakespeare Too, for children ages seven to 12, will perform “As You Like It,” directed by former Project Shakespeare student and now actor Christopher Commander, who travels from his home in London to bring the Shakespeare he loves to younger students.

“Getting up and performing Shakespeare well is one of the most rewarding things for me as an actor,” Commander said. “I want to bring that love and understanding of the text to the people I work with, I want them to enjoy the work, I want them to ask questions […].”

Thurber selected this Summer Season’s plays because she feels today’s society is divided and filled with conflict, and, in her perspective, these plays embody that predicament. Though the Bard’s work is centuries old, Commander also believes that Shakespeare is relevant to the contemporary world and captures the human condition more than any other playwright.

The casts of the Project Shakespeare Summer Season rehearses for just three and a half weeks before they open for their eight different performances. Commander notes that a lot of the confusion around Shakespeare comes from how it is taught. He says Shakespeare must be acted out and not taught as literature, because when an audience sees the language performed there is no “so-called language barrier.” Not only is it understandable for children, but Thurber also believes it gives them confidence, saying, “If a kid can conquer some Shakespeare, they feel like they can conquer the world.”