STRATFORD-UPON-AVON, ENGLAND -- On a hazy afternoon in the Bard's birthplace of Stratford, Shakespeare was making particular sense for a room of American and British teachers.

Royal Shakespeare Company actor Ralph Fiennes was reciting Sonnet 129 -- "Th'expense of spirit in a waste of shame." He stopped after each word and the teachers shouted, "What?"

The exercise compelled Fiennes to pay heed to every part of the verse, and his audience was impressed.

"The idea of acting each word -- I can make my students do that," said Lynn Lawrence, chairman of the English and drama department at Osbourn Park High School in Manassas.

"I've got tears in my eyes," sighed Marcia Rosenboom, who teaches high school drama and English at George Community High School in George, Iowa.

Fiennes and vocal coach Andrew Wade were showing how Shakespeare's Elizabethan language emerges clearly through breathing and technical exercises the teachers can apply at home.

The teachers were recently in Stratford on the first phase of a program -- "Teaching Shakespeare: Texts and Performances" -- which continued in Washington at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

The $500,000 program is the brainchild of the education departments of the Folger and the RSC.

"This is the largest-scale Shakespeare-education-for-teachers program that has ever gone on in the world," Tony Hill, the RSC's director of education, said in a joint interview with his Folger Library counterpart, Peggy O'Brien.

There is a double aim: to immerse teachers in Shakespeare from performing and analytical perspectives, and to give them the chance to meet each other.

"Teachers can be the most insular, self-obsessed and frankly boring group of people you ever get in the world," said Hill, who spent four years with O'Brien planning the current four weeks.

"At least part of that is to do with the fact that they're so seldom given the tools to do their job that you'd give to any other industry."

O'Brien, a former high school teacher, said teachers are too often "very invisible. One of the only ways we can see each other is when we get in a group like this at an institute."

Of primary importance in Stratford is the opportunity to watch classically trained talent such as Fiennes, who is playing Troilus in "Troilus and Cressida," grappling with difficult, knotted verse.

"It's about making the punctuation mark a physical movement," Denise Fournier, a 29-year-old teacher from Concord, N.H., decided after the young actor completed a drill in which grammar dictates changes in gesture.

For Lynn Lawrence, seeing the plays performed helps to teach them: "Students are leery. They're afraid of failure and of not understanding {Shakespeare}. I need to get them to see it as a story and a performance, and there's no other way to get that."

The site, for some, offers its own rewards.

"We {Americans} don't have any of this wonderful scenery or the birthplace," said Karen Huffman, who teaches advanced placement English to 12th-graders in Rapid City, S.D. "It brings Shakespeare home."

She added that the camaraderie was invaluable.

"I'm getting reassurance that I'm doing the right thing," Huffman said. "I'm really pleased I'm keeping pace out there in the boondocks."

Martha Christian, one of the "master teachers," said: "Teaching is lonely; most of us teach in isolation. This gives us a network of people who are enthusiastic."