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Gifted students tackle multiple Shakespeare plays

Students performing Shakespeare
March 26, 2012

Producing a Shakespeare play is a daunting assignment, but gifted students at Arizona State University’s Gary K. Herberger Young Scholars Academy didn’t stop at one. The students presented a production incorporating elements from 11 of the Bard’s plays, and three of his sonnets, in public performances during March in Second Stage West on ASU’s West campus.

Among the scenes in “Synthesizing Shakespeare” were Tragedy, Comedy, Love, and History. Material was drawn from plays including “Macbeth,” “Julius Caesar,” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

All of the students acted in the production. They also had duties ranging from designing tickets to program layout to constructing rapiers and other props.

“Going into the project, not all of the students were enthused about the prospect of performing in front of an audience,” said Kimberly Lansdowne, the Herberger Academy’s executive director. “They all displayed tremendous growth over the course of the production schedule, not just in terms of acting but in building leadership skills as they worked cooperatively in making all the myriad aspects of the project come together.”

One of the performances of “Synthesizing Shakespeare” featured a special guest in the audience: Gary K. Herberger, the namesake of Arizona’s only university-affiliated school designed to meet the unique needs of gifted adolescents.

“I was absolutely thrilled by the young scholars’ performance of Shakespeare,” Herberger said. “Their grasp of the literature and their ability to memorize and interpret such difficult prose was astounding. They are to be commended for their hard work and dedication to such a fine art.”

The Academy was founded through The Herberger Strategic Investment Fund, which was established by a $20-million gift from Herberger and his wife, Jeanne L. Herberger. The fund, part of the University’s Strategic Investment Program, is administered by the President’s Office and provides resources on a competitive basis to ASU units to launch, initiate and secure substantial additional funding for programs of strategic importance to the university.

The Herberger Academy, an initiative of ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, is in its inaugural academic year and has attracted gifted students from across metropolitan Phoenix. Among them are Eric Slosky and Sam Shapiro.

“If we learned about Shakespeare in a textbook, or even read one of his plays in a book, I don’t think we would have learned nearly as much as we did through the play,” said Slosky, who portrayed Romeo in “Synthesizing Shakespeare.” “I find myself quoting Shakespeare in my everyday life. This play was a great learning experience, fun to say the least, and a great bonding experience for the class.”

Shapiro echoed Slosky’s sentiments regarding the bonding that took place among students.

“How much closer could a class get than 30 students who’ve been together for more than half a year? Just perform, that’s how,” said Shapiro, who portrayed Macbeth, Julius Caesar and Thisbe. “The rigorous blocking, the polishing, and tech week backstage all helped us come together. By the end, everyone was wishing each other to ‘break a leg’ and hugging each other. We truly cared for each other that week, and that feeling has definitely carried over to regular classes and social time.”

The production was directed by visiting professional Sabrina Switzer-Wareing. In her director’s notes in the program, Switzer-Wareing described the practice in Shakespeare’s time of theater troupes traveling from town to town and performing multiple plays in a day. “With no set pieces, a few props and assorted odd garments to suggest their characters, they would present Shakespeare’s plays for the welcoming townspeople,” she explained.

“This production was a synthesis in more ways than one,” Switzer-Wareing said. “It offered the students the opportunity to combine discipline, intelligence, physicality, verbal acumen, and emotion for the purpose of creating the wonder that is live theater. They also explored themselves and by doing so shared something magical with one another and their audiences.”

Applications are now being accepted for gifted students interested in joining the Gary K. Herberger Young Scholars Academy when the next cohort begins its studies in August. More information is available at