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Ashland High School thespians give the gift of theater

Three hundred young human beings filed Tuesday into the Helman Elementary assembly hall. Each class was led by a teacher who did their best to keep the children relatively quiet and in an orderly line. Kids are kids though, so there was a lot of squealing and squirming as they sat cross-legged on the floor, each class together, kinda sorta.

Released from class for just an hour, the kindergarten through fifth-grade students were assembled for a special performance given by the Ashland High School Thespians.

The show at Helman Elementary and later that week at Walker and Bellview elementary schools was the culmination of 12 weeks of work by Ashland High School’s Advanced Acting Master Class, taught by Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Jenna Bainbridge. The eight high school students, dressed in black wearing white gauzy skirts, stood in front of the room watching and waiting and grinning. They waved two fingers in a peace sign for silence, the children following suit with their own, and the crowd settled down for the show. And what a show it was.

Senior Ella Stringer, juniors Isa Martinez Moore, Gwyn Murphy-Cunningham and sophomores Keagen Brooks Torres, Ben Kerr, Evan Lucas, Brooklyn Williams and Eva Tobar all elected to take the acting class this year.

Bainbridge, who starred in Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2019 “Hairspray” as Penny Pingleton, was this year’s OSF faculty-in-residence at Ashland High. Bainbridge worked with the master class to develop a vaudevillian panoply of fun with poetry, favorite books, rhymes and skits and even a bit of the bard, Act V, Scene I from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“A lot of the pieces were chosen by the students; I gave them a few ideas and they embellished them. I said, ‘What if we did a poem?’ And they chose ‘Sick’ by Shel Silverstein. Another day I asked them to bring in their favorite children’s stories, and we ended up with ‘Frog and Toad’ and ‘Tacky, the Penguin,’” said Bainbridge. “They were pieces they really loved mixed with a few that I thought would be great learning opportunities or things that I thought would be interesting to work on ... but it was mostly them.”

Big belly laughs filled the hall at Helman Elementary when Brooklyn Williams as Pyramus in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” plunged a sword into her body five times, shouting “Die! Die! Die! Die! Die!” with each thrust. Williams drew out the scene with comic exaggeration as the kids wriggled with loud mirth.

That same scene drew no big guffaws two days later at Belleview Elementary. There, the 230 children screamed acceptance at Isa Martinez Moore’s performance as Tacky, the Penguin from the book by Helen Lester. And they sighed with loud happiness when Ben Kerr announced that the next performance would be “The Lorax” by Dr. Seuss.

Afterward, the high schoolers were elated, high on the moment and excited at how the children responded to the performance.

“They laughed at everything; They’re so much more enthusiastic than adults; They’re not afraid,” the ensemble shared with a rush of excitement. And Ella Stringer said, “They laughed for so long. They laughed at some unexpected places where I thought that’s not something adults would laugh at, only kids would laugh at that.”

Ashland High School’s partnership with OSF began about 26 years ago, according to theater teacher Betsy Bishop. The festival loans talent to the high school in alternate years, where they teach acting, directing, set design and more to a small group of students.

“We’ve done all kinds of things, often Shakespeare, but the children’s show is the latest idea,” explained Bishop. “Two years ago, we did 45 minutes of ‘Comedy of Errors’ for the kids but that was a little too long; this year we said, let’s focus on acting and working as an ensemble.”

The ensemble set clear goals for interaction and engagement. As an introduction to “Sick” by Shel Silverstein, Ben Kerr asked the children if anybody had ever claimed sick to stay home from school, getting a field of waving hands in response. For some skits, the audience was part of the performance, and the actors performed while seated among the children. And for a spectacular finish, the ensemble invited the students to come and dance with them, expecting a few to join in — instead, the entire audience of 300 kids stood up and flooded the floor with movement.

This year, the Ashland High School Thespians brought the gift of theater to three elementary schools. The performances gave the gift of theater to nearly 1,000 kindergarten through fifth-graders.

“If you can find that passion when you’re young, you’re going to carry that passion with you for life,” said Bainbridge. “Art really inspires people to work and play and have fun, and for a lot of kids it’s why they come to school — I think it’s the most important kind of theater out there.”

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

Ashland High School Thespians and their drama coaches (from left to right): Isa Martinez Moore, Ben Kerr, ASH faculty Betsy Bishop, Keagen Brooks Torres, Ava Tobar, OSF’s Jenna Bainbridge, Evan Lucas, Gwyn Murphy-Cunningham, Ella Stringer, Brooklyn Williams.{ }Photo by Maureen Flanagan Battistella