For middle schoolers to love Shakespeare, they must know Shakespeare

Thanks to a national program called Any Given Child, every Juneau eighth grader got to see Perseverance Theatre’s “Othello” before it closed on Sunday. To help prepare students, the theater’s education director went into the classrooms and had the students act it out.

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Shona Osterhout, director of education at Perseverance Theatre, has 20 eighth graders at Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School enraptured.

To get eighth graders to understand Shakespeare’s “Othello,” Perseverance Theatre’s Shona Osterhout has them act it out. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)
To get eighth graders to understand Shakespeare’s “Othello,” Perseverance Theatre’s Shona Osterhout has them act it out. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

Students playing Othello and Desdemona are in front of the rest of the class. The seeds of doubt have been planted in Othello’s head. Desdemona is trying to convince him she hasn’t been unfaithful.

“He doesn’t believe her,” Osterhout says, “because he’s had the proof, air quote ‘proof,’ and he goes to her and he strangles her.”

Most of the students react in shock. One student says, “I knew it.”

Othello, played by student Beni Lata, wraps his hands around his wife, Desdemona, played by another student. Desdemona is dying.

“You can take your hands off her,” Osterhout directs. “And enter Emilia. She’s heard a lot of commotion.”

Playing Emilia, eighth grader Chloe McAdams goes over to the dying Desdemona, “What has happened here?”

Eighth grader Beni Lata plays Othello. Izza Luna is Desdemona. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)
Eighth grader Beni Lata plays Othello. Izza Luna is Desdemona. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

“Suicide. I’ve killed myself,” says Izzy Luna, playing Desdemona.

“And then she dies,” Osterhout announces to the class.

In shock at her own character’s death, Luna says, “Oh my gosh.” The rest of the class laughs.

Thanks to a national program called Any Given Child, every Juneau eighth grader got to see Perseverance Theatre’s “Othello” before it ended Sunday. To help prepare students, the theater’s education director went into the classrooms and had the students act it out.

Dana Tran, 13, said it was fun watching her classmates act out Othello, “and it was shocking ‘cause I didn’t think that he would kill his wife.”

Student Lindzy Nguyen said Osterhout’s teaching style got her to pay attention: “From her shouting — not in a bad way — the shouting and her expression, it made me listen.”

That was Osterhout’s goal — to make Shakespeare’s play accessible to the middle schoolers.

“Shakespeare just writes about human truths. He writes about racism. He writes about jealousy. He writes about love. He writes these amazing relationships. That to me just goes through every age group,” Osterhout said.

Osterhout visited every eighth grade class at Floyd Dryden Middle School and most at Dzantik’i Heeni. Perseverance also planned post-play discussions of Othello at Montessori Borealis and Juneau Community Charter School.

Osterhout said getting the students to move around and act the parts instills the plot, and that makes it easier to watch the play.

“When they see what’s going on and they hear what’s going on and the words are a little different and hard to understand, they’ll know exactly because they’ve done it themselves or they’ve watched their friends do it, which is always way more important. I can sit there and talk to them for hours and hours, but if their friends do it, we’re in like Flynn,” Osterhout said.

A character like Iago, she said, is easy to get into.

“Iago is an archetypal villain. He’s the villain’s villain. When he’s onstage, kids in classrooms over at Floyd Dryden were booing him every time he went to do something. For me, that’s perfect. That’s what Shakespeare would’ve wanted anyway. He wanted audiences to feel what’s happening,” Osterhout said.

Eighth grade teacher Amy Lloyd said she enjoyed watching the students gasp and cheer during the class.

“They were all engaged. Everybody was paying attention. Nobody was squirming around. I didn’t have one bathroom pass. That’s a good sign,” Lloyd said.

The goal of Any Given Child is to provide an equitable arts experience for all students. With the program’s launch in Juneau, every eighth grader, regardless of what teacher they have or what socioeconomic level they come from, saw Othello for free. A student ticket would’ve cost $8.

“Theater isn’t as accessible to everybody unless you get that push,” Lloyd said. “I’m hoping this really makes them feel like, ‘If I went again on my own, I’d feel more comfortable. It would be somewhere I’ve been before and I understand how it works.’”

In total, more than 500 Juneau eighth graders saw Othello at Perseverance Theatre. It’s good preparation for the spring, when they’ll be reading Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”