Grade School Shakespeare

School News
October 31, 2017
The show is called The Rainbow Connection. And yes, there is a frog, but no, SHE is not Kermit. And yes, she will sing the show’s namesake song, but that’s where the connection to the Muppets ends. The production, which runs this Thursday and Friday, November 2-3 at 5:30 p.m. in the VMS Theatre, is actually a mashup of three Shakespeare plays brought together into a life lesson about how we are all woven together in a beautiful fabric that is a metaphor for our community. Perfect for a cast of third through fifth graders who are learning the same thing at this point in their lives, right?

So how does one combine Shakespeare and the Muppets? “I started with The Rainbow Connection as a departure point,” says VMS Theatre Director, Greg Jones, “Because I wanted it to tie into this year’s Gala theme, Woven Together, which is focused on the relationships that make our community so special. Rainbows, like a plaid fabric, find their strength and beauty in how their components combine. With rainbows, it’s the colors; with fabric, it’s both the colors and the threads. The three Shakespeare plays are each focused on a relationship that is central to the story—Romeo and Juliet; Caesar and Brutus; and Petruchio and Katherina (The Taming of the Shrew).”

The central character of The Rainbow Connection is a Lady Frog who wears a dress. This distinction from an otherwise obvious association with another amphibian is important because it liberates her from preconceived notions and stereotypes, which may just be another life message. Lady Frog is trying to figure out why there are so many songs about rainbows, and this quest becomes the throughline for the show. She is aided by characters from other Shakespeare greats—Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the witches from Macbeth. Contemporary songs are used to add musical interest, but more importantly, to illustrate specific themes. Chrissie Hynde’s “Stand by You” highlights the betrayal of Caesar by Brutus while “Cool” by Gwen Stefani emotes resolution, as in “Are we cool?”

Color naturally plays a big part in any show about rainbows, but the intentionality is especially apparent in this one. Each of the three Shakespeare shows has a color associated with it that plays out in the art direction: The Taming of the Shrew uses blue; Julius Caesar is represented by green; and Romeo and Juliet is symbolized, of course, by red. Each of these colors manifests in the lighting design and digital backdrops projected on the stage’s cyclorama (the big screen at the very back of the stage). An interesting side note—this show is the debut of our brand-new, high-tech, short-throw projector. This new piece of technology allows images to be projected on the backdrop from inside the proscenium without casting shadows from actors standing near the screen.

And while this is a Lower School show, students in grades 6-8 have also played an important role in the production. Using the school’s new MakerSpace under the direction of Jason Cox, the Middle School’s Theatre and Set Design class helped create the props and digital backdrops that you will see on stage. For example: students designed and fabricated various swords and daggers using plywood, a laser cutter and paint; they sewed belts and scabbards for costumes; and they transformed styrofoam insulation sheets into Caesar's sarcophagus using routers and faux stone painting techniques.

So at this point, the big question in most people’s minds is the choice to have Lower School students grapple with Shakespeare. In particular, you’re probably wondering how they dealt with the challenge of the complicated dialogue and the emotionally heavy themes such as death, suicide, and betrayal? “Some of these kids have been a part of our theatre program for several years now, and they were ready for a challenge,” says Greg Jones. “We used scripts adapted for middle school-aged students, but the classic lines remain in the original Elizabethan English.”

Mr. Jones also noted that Shakespeare is a great way to introduce kids to the difference between acting and real life. “Shakespeare wanted his characters to really overplay serious things like dying, but then was very disciplined about portraying accurate sword fighting at the same time. We talked a lot about the social-emotional aspects, the distinction between acting and reality, and and the importance of not mixing up the two.”

There’s a lot to this show, and with a 105 minute run time, this is also the longest Lower School production to date. The two performances of The Rainbow Connection take place Thursday and Friday, November 2-3 at VMS beginning at 5:30 pm. Admission is free and open to the public, so please feel free to invite friends.