In between the usual Saturday activities — soccer, ballet, taekwondo — a group of 9- and 10-year-olds from Loudoun Country Day School are learning to “crack the code” of William Shakespeare.
About a dozen fourth- and fifth-graders attend voluntary Saturday morning classes at the Leesburg-area private school to learn how to understand and perform Shakespeare’s works. The school’s headmaster, Randy Hollister, leads the classes.
Hollister, 58, describes himself as a longtime Shakespeare enthusiast. He joined the school’s faculty in 1988 as an English teacher and has been headmaster since 1993. He began offering the classes in January “as a tool to help them find and develop their voices,” he said.
“I want it to be fun for them,” Hollister said. “The last thing I want to do is treat this experience as lectures on Shakespeare. That’s not the point. The point is to acquaint them with some pieces — from some of the sonnets, excerpts from plays, some of the many famous speeches — to get them into the language and the performing as much as possible.”
Eight boys and five girls gathered in the school’s foyer one Saturday morning last month and ate bagels as Hollister explained that Shakespeare was a “master of metaphor.”
“Great poetry is not just about ideas,” he said. “It’s words. Shakespeare’s genius is that he is able to do both.”
After some of the students volunteered to read sonnets to the rest of the group, Hollister asked whether any would like to perform speeches from “Henry V” or “Julius Caesar.” One boy stepped forward and climbed partway up a stairway so that he could deliver his oratory from the landing to those gathered below.
Hollister reminded him to project and perform, not just read the speech.
“You are not Hayden,” he said. “You are King Henry, trying to inspire your troops before they go into battle.”
The group soon moved into the library, where Hollister divided them into two groups — boys and girls — so that each group could rehearse a different scene from “Much Ado About Nothing.” As Hollister passed out the scripts to the boys, some immediately began vying for their roles: “I’ll be Conrade!” “I’ll be the First Watchman!”
Hollister allowed the groups to decide how to assign the roles.
“Watch what he’s doing,” he whispered, nodding toward one boy who, he said, had emerged as a leader. “He’s making sure that everyone has a role.”
“I’m giving them a lot of responsibility in deciding how they want to do the scenes, instead of me assigning all of the parts and telling them how to do the blocking and the staging and everything else,” Hollister said. “I want that to be part of the experience for them.”
Soon the students were planning how to use the space for their scene, moving tables and chairs into position. Some of the boys stood on the chairs while delivering their lines.
As the students began practicing their scenes, Hollister strode around the room like a coach, encouraging them to “ham it up.”
“The affectations really need to be over the top,” he said. “Over the top!
“Shakespeare is directing you,” he said. “He’s giving you the clues for how you should behave. Run with it. Fill up the room. More and more and more! Because as you do that, that’s what brings the whole scene to life, and you then are truly entertaining the audience. The more you do that, the more they will understand what’s going on, and they will appreciate it.”
As each group performed its scene for the second time, parents began to arrive to pick up their children.
“You would never think that my son would like Shakespeare,” said Kevin McDonald of Leesburg. “It’s really expanding his mind beyond what you would normally think he would be attracted to.”
Alison Moye of Ashburn said her son “really loves” the class.
“I think he enjoys the interaction with the other kids, and really expanding their horizons,” she said, before they headed off toward their next activity.
“We have laser tag to get to next,” Moye said. “From Shakespeare to laser tag!”