Hours before they were to begin rehearsing for the summer opening performance of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," two members of Oregon Shakespeare Festival's cast were 12 miles away, coaching other performers in the same play: fifth-graders at Orchard Hill Elementary.

Hours before they were to begin rehearsing for the summer opening performance of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," two members of Oregon Shakespeare Festival's cast were 12 miles away, coaching other performers in the same play: fifth-graders at Orchard Hill Elementary.

It's rare that 10- and 11-year-olds can recite pages of Shakespeare. Rarer still is for them to understand the language and intertwining relationships. Almost unheard of is for elementary schoolchildren to be given months to memorize lines and practice stage moves, then be gently evaluated by distinguished actors.

But then, not every kid has OSF.

Students eager to sit in a theater seat arrive in Ashland by the busload. Their teachers attend workshops to learn how to prepare the class for what they will see acted before their eyes. There are backstage field trips and post-performance discussions with the actors.

Rogue Valley schoolchildren have it even better. There are discounted performance tickets and class credit; youth auditions and opportunities to perform on stage. Actors come to school.

Shakespeare is so prevalent in schools here that when Michelle Zundel was the principal at Walker Elementary in Ashland, she had to break the news to her students that only fourth- and fifth-graders could attend a school-sponsored OSF performance. She remembers a third-grader writing a letter to her, asking, "How can you keep Shakespeare from me?"

Zundel is now the principal at Ashland High School, where students in a theater master class spend a semester learning from OSF playwrights, technical wizards and directors. Upperclassmen in Rick Cornelius' English course have months to study the Shakespeare canon, aided by insider information from guest lecturers. And those interested in staging a performance can intern for the pre-curtain time Green Show.

It's all about getting students on their feet and interacting to bring 16th-century verse and prose to life, says Katherine Gosnell, OSF's outreach programs manager.

The plays have been taught for centuries, yet, "students are frequently fearful in their approach to Shakespeare's works and think they won't understand his plays," she says.

That fear fades when the plays are taught using aural, visual and kinesthetic modes of learning.

"Students end up having incredibly insightful responses to his work," she says. "They discover that they actually not only understand his plays, but really want to explore and learn more."

Brent Barry, principal of Orchard Hill Elementary in the Phoenix-Talent School District, says his students have a connection to Shakespeare and acting thanks to a program that is as old as a fifth-grader.

For 11 years, Jim Amberg, a retired teacher and principal who works as OSF's house manager, has volunteered to teach easily distracted fifth-graders to appreciate — even love — the seemingly arcane language of the world's most famous plays.

After months of practice with Amberg and their teachers, the students will perform a shortened version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Young narrators set the scene using modern language written by Orchard Hill fifth-grade teacher Terry McNaught.

Principal Barry says the training makes the students more fluent readers, increases their vocabulary and improves their speaking skills. Plus, it's exciting for everyone to see.

But first, the budding actors must practice.

On Wednesday, Ted Deasy, who will play fairy king Oberon, and Gina Daniels, who will play the jester, Puck, in OSF's production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," were sitting cross-legged on a stage in Orchard Hill's intimate music room.

In front of them were pint-size actors sitting in small chairs and peppering them with questions.

Celeste Mackinnon, who is one of the four narrators, needs to know from the pros how they get their voices loud enough so the audience can hear.

Deasy says that everyone has the capacity to be heard without screaming, then he suggests they tap into "that voice you use to call out to your friends."

Zach Trenbeath, who plays the reluctant actor Francis Flute, wants to know what to do if another actor messes up the lines. Daniels reminds them that it's a team effort and to keep going.

There is a series of other "What if" questions: What if I get tongue-tied? (Stop, breathe and give the line again.) What if I miss a cue? (You don't.) What if I sneeze?

Deasy confesses that he once had the hiccups on stage.

"Have you heard the expression, 'The show must go on?' " Deasy asks. They all nod. "Well, the show must go on."

Anthony Courtright, who plays love-struck Lysander, asks what he should do if he can't pronounce a word.

Get help during rehearsals, says Daniels, tilting her head with a reassuring smile. In a green Cookie Monster T-shirt, she says she has a list of questions to ask that day at her first rehearsal.

When it was time for the young actors to perform three scenes in front of the pros, the generations switched places, with Daniels and Deasy sitting in the school chairs, watching the students say their lines loud and clear.

At one point, while Isaiah Oliver, the fifth-grade, scene-stealing Oberon, was holding his chin in his hand on stage, Deasy watched from the back of the room, unconsciously holding the same pose.

In between it all, there were backstage whispers and some shushing and loud sounds of the lunch bell and first-graders in the playground. But nothing unnerved these actors. They just let the show go on.

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@dailytidings.com.