Jason Boyington can't stop smiling and it's killing his character.
Not to mention his director, Thomas Shepherd.
"Your character doesn't smile," Mr. Shepherd bellowed from the middle of a row of dim seats in the audience. "You must act like Baptista, not Beavis and Butthead."
His white T-shirt gleaming in the lights as he stood in the middle of the stage, Jason, 14, turned his shoulders away and tried to swallow a grin, but it was glued to his face. Other cast members stared at their shoes.
Believe it or not, this is Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, or at least it will be by Friday night when the play opens at Spirit Creek Middle School. And for every 2« hours of practice each day, five days a week, Spirit Creek teacher Mr. Shepherd receives exactly nothing but the thrill of watching his pupils pull it off.
Miles away at Belle Terrace Community Center, another group of children stood in two rows at the back of the room, their faces blank, their eyes intently focused on the woman in the purple suit who stood in front of them waving her arms slowly up and down. They responded with a monk-like low sound.
"I'm left in this wide world, this wide world alone," they sang and then paused as they sucked in a deep breath and blew it out together in a long note that raised and sank and swelled out across the room. "Aaah-lowwwn."
Creative Impressions, the group Morgan Road Middle School chorus teacher Evelyn Sanders leads through practice, is only a few days away from a Christmas concert Saturday. For her efforts this week and every week, all Ms. Sanders will get back is that song.
Neither Mr. Shepherd nor Ms. Sanders receives any compensation or funding for their programs from their employer, Richmond County School System. Nor are there any state funds specifically allocated to reward teachers for their extra efforts.
It means bake sales and car washes and ending practice at Belle Terrace with a frank discussion on shoes and tuxedo shirts.
"Who's got their shirts?" Ms. Sanders asks. A handful of boys raise their hands. Last time, they could borrow some shirts from Butler High School but will end up renting both shirts and shoes because it would cost $144 just to buy the shoes.
"A hundred and forty-four dollars for shoes? I don't think they can do that," Ms. Sanders said.
But some parents of children in Creative Impressions say there is an advantage in being on their own and not getting support from the school system, along with the restrictions on what it could do.
"That would take away the uniqueness of the group," said parent Carol Eunice.
And it means being able to do spiritual songs that might otherwise run afoul of school district policy, said soprano Karen Herrington, 17, a senior at Glenn Hills High School.
"We changed, Killing Me Softly, into Calling Me Softly, you know, for the Lord," she said.
For tenor Gerry Kemp, it means balancing a job after school at Burger King, and homework with helping to run the club and make practice, but it is the best thing he could do with his time, he said.
"If I was off (work), I'd just be sitting at home watching TV," said the 16-year-old junior at Butler.
That's why Ms. Sanders and James E. Crawford formed the club nine months ago - to give forgotten voices the chance to be heard.
"Being able to offer them the chance to do what they can with what they've got instead of just settling for something," she said.
It also means sometimes she has to bear down on the group members and remind them why they are there.
Mrs. Sanders stopped the group and paced in front of them.
"You know what I'm listening for? A heart," she said. That's what makes the difference between a good singer and a soloist, she said.
"What that decision comes down to is someone with the heart to do it. I did not say the voice, I said the heart," she said. Whatever skill and talent they bring, she wants them to give it all.
"Performance is all about giving," she said. "That's why our performances are called gifts."
And it can mean more to children than just having a chance to express themselves. Children who participate in the arts develop a greater interest in school in general and stretching themselves to master artistic skills pays off in other subjects, such as math, said Margaret Wamsted, director of the Art Factory, citing recent research. It also means discovering something about themselves, she said.
"We'll see some of these kids who don't have a place in school start finding a place," she said.
But it is not easy.
Even though they've been practicing a month, the clever dialogue and quick timing of The Shrew is difficult to maintain at Spirit Creek with nearly 40 children running in and out of the curtained wings.
"A lot of this is traffic cop," Mr. Shepherd admits. "These kids have so much energy, it's incredible."
In the controlled chaos of the stage, lines can be hard to hang onto.
Katharine (Jennifer Russell, 13) is squaring off with Lady Linda, (Crystal Wheeler, 13) over who is the biggest "shrew" in front of the rest of the cast.
"'Tis an ugly habit but you are uglier still," Jennifer snips off in her rival's face, as the chorus behind her oohs. Crystal, who is actually best friends with Jennifer, seems to go blank. "When it comes, when it comes" and offstage someone yells out the line. "When it comes to shrewery, the eldest daughter of this house could give lessons," she shoots back.
And while Mr. Shepherd is grateful he can use the school's theater, he has been waging a months-long battle with the school district to replace some of the stage lights. Currently, only six of the 24 work leaving gaps on the stage.
It's another thing he has to work through to put on his play. Though the original Shrew is nearly 400 years old, Mr. Shepherd adapted it for modern English and did a little editing of his own. Where the original play ends in Katharine discovering the joy of being submissive and dutiful to her husband, Mr. Shepherd ends his with a more equal partnership between Katharine and the male lead, Petruchio. He also substituted a female player, his own daughter, Emily, for the male servant of Lucentio, who in the play switches roles with her master and plays a man so that Lucentio can disguise himself as a teacher to woo his beloved Bianca.
Confused? It's one of the lessons, Petruchio, 13-year-old Lamon Coleman, has learned from his long afternoons of practice.
"If somebody likes you, it's because of you and not what you pretend to be," he said.
For his opposite, Jennifer, the reward is much simpler.
"The only payment I need is the applause you get at the end," she said.
It's also what keeps Mr. Shepherd going after seven years.
"In sports there's winners and losers, you train your team well but they still might lose," he said. "In theater, nobody loses. When the curtain falls at the end of the play, everybody from the kids who did makeup to the star of the show feels like winners. I feel like we're creating memories that are going to echo down the corridor of time."
Even if he, and Ms. Sanders, have to do it on their own.
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