Five actors from the London stage stood on a bare wooden platform at the University of Maryland. Under a couple of hot, white lights, sans props or costumes, they rehearsed scenes from William Shakespeare's romantic comedy "Twelfth Night."
Before them, 200 high school students from the Maryland suburbs crouched in chairs, pleased to have escaped a day at school yet wary about the coming encounter. It was the actors' mission to make these teen-agers understand and enjoy Shakespeare.
"How many of you think Shakespeare is a bore? Come on, raise your hands," said one of the actors, Sam Dale of the National Theatre of Great Britain.
Hesitantly, several hands were raised.
"That's more or less how I felt. Because it is very badly taught, as if it should be kept in a museum, that it has no relevance today," Dale said.
Then he introduced a soliloquy from "Julius Caesar" and explained it to the students. "This was a massive, badly organized conspiracy that ends up in a bloody war and the assassination of the head of state. Brutus has been up all night wondering if he should get involved in the murder."
Silence. But slowly the students began to question Dale about the credibility of a story in which a leader in a democratic society is slain. Then, Dale sought to bring the text into the students' understanding by reminding them of President Kennedy's assassination in 1963.
The students immediately caught the lesson, smiled and nodded.
The exchange was part of the Alliance for Creative Theater, Education and Research, a program based in London and at the University of California at Santa Barbara, said Adele Seeff, executive director of U-Md.'s renaissance and baroque studies. The program is designed to boost the cross-cultural study of theater and literature, Seeff said.
In addition to Dale, the actors who came to College Park to participate in the university's annual Shakespeare seminars last week were Clifford Rose and Richard Simpson from the Royal Shakespeare Company and Julia Watson and Vivien Heilbron of Britain's National Theatre. Together they taught language and theater courses to local high school and university students and area teachers.
The actors also gave two performances, a full production of "Twelfth Night," and selections of works by George Bernard Shaw.
The actors, who had to double up on characters and pantomime the furniture, view the program "as a wonderful experiment," Heilbron said.
As they began rehearsing their scenes for the high school students, Shakespeare's 17th century English appeared to be forgotten by the teen-agers and their interest became more intense. Rustling noises ceased and some students were so entranced they quit chewing their gum.
When the rehearsal was over, the students perched on the edge of their seats, hungry for an explanation of what they had just seen.
"How could you stand for so long without cracking up?" one student asked. "How do you remember all those lines?" said another. "How do you become two different people on stage?"
"In last year's tour, I had to play an entire army," Heilbron replied.
The ice was broken as the students giggled.
"We have to do an awful lot of work to fill in what is provided for you in television and movies," Heilbron said. "We live in a rapid age when gratification is instant and we've lost the fun of tantalizing each other with the word."
After the seminars, the students burst exuberantly into the hallways.
Jean Paul Molyeaux, a senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, admitted that he attended the seminar "to get out of school." But he said he was impressed with "the way they adjust to the language. I mean, they don't stutter at all.
"With this you see more than in television. Your imagination rules more. If I could go out and get a part right now, I could be just like them and it would be so much fun."
"I've been teaching some very bright, enthusiastic people," Dale said of the students after the session. "It's terribly stimulating . . . . You get this energy pumped into you. The feedback helps our performances.
"The idea is to create fresh, flexible theater, to demonstrate that I'm flesh and blood, I'm ordinary. Hopefully then, it is a richer experience for everybody."