Angel Combs was skeptical when she was introduced to Shakespeare this year in ninth-grade English class.
After the Academy of Richmond County freshman got over words such as “thou,” “whilst” and “ere,” however, she could see some relevance in Romeo and Juliet.
Like Juliet, Angel, 14, has been in love.
Like Juliet, she has seen that love be tested.
“Love, it can be a horrible feeling,” Angel said. “Especially if somebody interferes with it.”
On Wednesday, she and the rest of the Richmond Academy freshman class got to see Shakespeare’s words come to life outside of what they’ve seen in their textbooks. For the seventh year, English teacher Ken Stephens presented the school’s Shakespeare Festival, at which students took turns reciting monologues, soliloquies and original plays.
Their theater was the school football field, where the students spent the day together on a sort of in-house field trip. They sat on the grass on towels and folding chairs, some wrapped in blankets against the morning’s chilly wind.
One by one, the students stepped on a portable stage with a microphone and performed memorized lines and plays.
Some dressed in Golden Age costumes. Others, such as Patrick Bolick, 15, did his best Henry V recital in a Guy Harvey T-shirt and shorts.
“He which hath no stomach to this fight, let him depart,” Patrick said, his hands stuffed in his pockets. “His passport shall be made, and crowns for convoy put into his purse.”
Stephens said he created the Shakespeare Festival in 2007, his first year at Richmond Academy, as a way to get students out of the classroom. He requires freshmen to read Romeo and Juliet and watch two movie versions of the play, but acting out the words in their own voice adds another element, he said.
“When students see other students who get up there, learn their lines and perform, it’s rewarding,” Stephens said. “They see there’s more to it than just the grade.”
Stephens said the festival has grown in support over the years, with more faculty members and parents stopping by to observe. They also have had lunch donated by Sconyers Bar-B-Que every year.
Dittilio and Brenda Shepherd brought several church friends to see their daughter, Tashyria, perform a Juliet monologue.
“Doing something outside of sports, getting excited about something intellectual like this is great,” Dittilio Shepherd said. “Everybody going through school has done Romeo and Juliet, but this is really something.”
Stephens recruited Richmond County gifted teacher Ann Beth Strelec and A.R. Johnson Health Science and Engineering Magnet School history teacher Michael Wilson to judge the performances and award trophies to the top six.
Strelec said that although Shakespeare is important to the high school curriculum, getting teenagers interested in the verse and prose can be tricky. Putting the works in their own voice and on stage can help.
“Students get up on stage and learn about presence and articulation and eye contact,” Strelec said. “It’s a skill they’ll have for life, so pairing that with Shakespeare is the perfect marriage.”