Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

May 12, 2010

Directing a classic

Student takes on Shakespeare

Ken Hart
The Independent

RACELAND — Half an hour before play practice, Taylor Shaffer is handing out lapel microphones and reminding actors it’s time to get into costume.

A few minutes later she’s back in the sound booth doing sound checks.

Then she races back to the stage to remind the actors they’ll need their swords for the scene they’re rehearsing.

It’s the pivotal scene in “Romeo and Juliet” where Tybalt kills Mercutio and Romeo kills Tybalt.

Practice is about to start and there’s a mini-crisis. Tybalt isn’t there. He’s at the dentist getting a tooth pulled.

No real problem. Shaffer can stand in for Tybalt and Mary Johnson, the drama teacher at Raceland-Worthington High School, will read his lines.

So there is Shaffer, the director of the Raceland drama club’s upcoming production of Shakespeare’s signature tragedy, clanging swords with Mercutio, her black knit beret flopping as she whirls about with her cutlass, her black boots looking passably Elizabethan even though she’s the only one not in costume.

It takes that kind of ever-present energy to direct a play, any play, and especially to wrangle a rambunctious bunch of teenage actors who have just finished up a day of math and science and social studies.

Shaffer is 15 and a freshman at Raceland. With experience as an actress in several local productions, she asked Johnson for the directing gig and Johnson said yes.

Johnson said she agreed in part because of Shaffer’s obvious talent and drive, and also in the hope of deepening the appeal of drama club.

“This is a good opportunity because it gets younger kids involved,” she said. Not only will Shaffer be a drama fixture at Raceland for the next three years, more freshmen may follow her example, she hopes.

In fact, she recalls, Shaffer recently did a Scooby-Doo skit specifically designed to lure younger students into theater.

The local Red Lion Theater Co. was her introduction to the stage. Shaffer was in the company’s production of “Macbeth” in 2008 and has a lead role in its “Midsummer Night’s Dream” production.

What she found in the theater was not just an art form but a community, and that is what hooked her. “It was the environment. I found that theater people are so close and knitted together. It’s comforting and it inspired creativity and freedom,” she said.

Directing is another step in her ambition to become a professor of drama. “I wanted to get my feet wet and what better way to do that than in high school?” she said.

High school presents certain challenges for a freshman director, namely the rigidly stratified hierarchy in which seniors are demigods and freshmen are the peasantry.

A director, as the name suggests, must direct, and that only works if the actors take the direction.

There was a bit of resistance in the beginning, Johnson said, but with her backup, the company fell in line.

What really makes the relationship work, Shaffer said, is that the actors are committed to the show and focused.

“They want it to be good,” she said.

She in turn believes it is the director’s job to bring out the best in actors: “It starts with a good idea of what an actor needs to hear and to know about the character,” she said.

It also takes an understanding of human needs. “I have to be really strict but understanding too, especially because this is high school and people have sports and academics too,” she said.

The show is a modernized version of the classic tragedy, with updated dialogue. There are dance sequences and some moments that Shaffer calls “wild and crazy,” along with the well-known story of star-crossed lovers.

The students made the sets and scenery, which Johnson called more elaborate than usual for a Raceland production.

The actors are working with real swords, which had Johnson worried at first but an expert came in to coach them on procedure and safety. Also the swords are too dull to cut.

There will be a performance for students during school hours May 20 and public performances at 6 p.m. that night and at 1 p.m. May 22. All performances are in the John P. Stephens Cultural Arts Center.

MIKE JAMES can be reached at mjames@dailyindependent.com or at (606) 326-2652.