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All the school’s a stage: Whitehorse elementary school students take on Twelfth Night

Standing with their hands behind their backs, shyly rolling up and down on the balls of their feet, a handful of children from the Yukon Montessori School rehearse a scene from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

Standing with their hands behind their backs, shyly rolling up and down on the balls of their feet, a handful of children from the Yukon Montessori School rehearse a scene from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

“Now, there’s lots of motion in this scene. I need lots of action. Can we do that?” asked Eleanor Crowder, a professional actor and drama teacher from the Ottawa-based theatre group, Bear & Co.

The kids nod attentively, and launch into Act 5.

The play is part of the Yukon Montessori School’s Shakespeare Unplugged festival. Starting May 1, students aged 6 to 10 from Montessori and Golden Horn Elementary schools have been participating in four days of workshops. The children work with Crowder and colleague Isaac Giles, as well as a handful of local high school students and amateur actors. The whole group will perform a casual run-through of the play on May 4 at 5:15 p.m. at the Grey Mountain Room at Mount McIntyre.

The school flew Crowder and Giles in from Ontario especially to work with the students. This is Crowder’s third year participating.

While the workshops are running now, the Montessori students have been studying the play for almost two years, said head teacher and festival organizer, Dominic Bradford.

“The kids really thrive on this. When we handed out the scripts in February last year, we couldn’t get the them out fast enough,” he said. “We wanted something they could chew on for a long time.”

Montessori has been putting on the festival for the last five years, beginning in 2011, when they worked with local dramatist Brian Fiddler to create a puppet-show version of MacBeth, said Bradford.

This is the second year they have worked with Twelfth Night. The kids performed one half of the play last year and are now working on the other half, with the kids from Golden Horn Elementary working on the parts the Montessori students did last year, said Crowder.

“We chose a funny play (this time), so the kids can sort of struggle with love, that’s what’s going on in the Elizabethan period — and there’s sword fights and stuff,” said Bradford.

There are a few kids doing stage managing jobs, Bradford said, but most of the students are actively involved in the performance.

Grade 5 student and actor Kate Koepke said being in the play is a lot of fun. Kate plays the role of the jester Feste.

“It’s really cool. It’s really neat to see the little kids putting on big speeches,” she said. “It’s cool how it’s a big event with everyone.”

Aside from the workshops, they’ve also been working the play into their everyday curriculum in the classroom, Bradford said, incorporating it into spelling tests to learn vocabulary and talking about the history of Elizabethan England, its social structure, and the concept of courtly love, Bradford said. These are the core ideas the play simultaneously revolves around and pokes fun at.

Twelfth Night is a farcical Shakespearean comedy, in which twin siblings Sebastian and Viola become separated by a shipwreck. Viola assumes a male identity for most of the play, resulting in a series of romantic misadventures.

The play was chosen in part because the Montessori School has two sets of twins in the group, said Crowder.

“If you had two sets of twins, what other play would you possibly want to do?” Crowder said, laughing.

While the play is light-hearted, it also deals with material that could be considered difficult for children to understand including sexual innuendo, the politics of sexuality and marriage and gender fluidity.

For the most part, the kids don’t pick up on these things and they aren’t focused on them, said Bradford. What the students are most interested in is the story, he said.

“Really, they’re just doing the base layer now. It’s fun to watch them. They’re very innocent about it,” he said.

Giles, who works in Toronto but is originally from Sioux Lookout, Ont., said it was really inspiring to see the kids working on the play together. The kids are “capable and learn very quickly,” he said.

“(The performance) is about seeing that Shakespeare doesn’t have to be only for academics and professionally trained actors,” he said. “These 9- and 10-year-old kids can do almost an entire play of Shakespeare and understand it.”

“They’re doing the same work (as adult actors),” Crowder said. “They’re just physically smaller. People underestimate just how strong children actually are … kids are very capable of doing these plays and having a lot of fun with it.”

Aside from learning how to perform and other literacy skills, Crowder said the kids also gain confidence from a project like this.

“They are using what is understood to be very difficult language,” she said.

“As a teacher, I get the pleasure of teaching kids one of the greatest joys of theatre,” Crowder said.”Doing a technically hard thing very well.”

Bradford said the students understand a good deal more of Shakespeare than you would expect them to, given the challenging nature of the work. Part of the purpose of the workshops is to prepare kids to work with Shakespeare in high school.

“This way, when then get there and see Shakespeare, they don’t freak out,” Bradford said.

Contact Lori Garrison at