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Sunday, April 28, 2013

Helping Kids Connect with Shakespeare (interview)
Jessica Hansen is the Artistic Director of Lean & Hungry Theater, which brings professional audio theater to underserved areas in and around Washington, DC. and produces radio broadcasts of Shakespeare’s plays, including a telenovela version The Taming of the Shrew and As You Like It set at a 1960s music festival. Ms. Hansen has also taught classical theater techniques to middle school-aged students with The Shakespeare Theatre, the Maryland Shakespeare Festival, and Encore Stage & Studio.  

How do Lean & Hungry’s programs make Shakespeare more accessible for students?

Lean & Hungry Theater creates modern adaptations.  We put the play in a fun and surprising setting: a sci-fi version of The Tempest in outer space, a Southern California Romeo & Juliet, or a Macbeth administration in the White House, for instance. We cut the shows down to an hour and add modern-day narration throughout, to keep the story moving. Then a composer writes music and we add both live and computer sound effects to help create a vivid soundscape to help tell the story in an entertaining way.

How did your production company get started? What kind of background did you have in theater and broadcasting? 

My parents were both English professors, but when I was in high school, I hated reading Hamlet. I was set up to win and still didn’t enjoy it. It was 400-year-old words on a page and nothing more. Kids all across the country have to read Shakespeare in school, and the stories are fun and beautiful once you begin to understand them… so we thought: how can we create an experience that tells the story but is more fun and engaging for everyone?

I had been a stage and TV actress all my life, I’d worked for my college radio station, and had just earned my MFA in Acting from Brandeis University. Lean & Hungry Theater combines all those skills and experience, and takes them one step further.

What are the challenges and benefits of audio theater and radio productions?

Creating a complete audio experience gets tricky when Shakespeare has written a sight gag and we have to find a way to communicate it aurally. There’s a scene in The Tempest when two characters are under a cloak and a third character sees them and thinks it’s a monster. To tell that story for the listening audience, we used the actors’ vocal reactions and sound effects, including a slide whistle. The slide whistle is a standard comedic effect in old radio drama, and it’s still very effective.

Which play(s) do you think are the most accessible to students? Which are the least accessible?

People think kids will like the comedies or the romances more, but I think once they get to understanding the language, every story can come alive. I’ve seen an amazing Richard III from a 7th-grader.

What advice would you give to teachers who are trying to interest their students in Shakespeare?

Make it fun; make it relevant to today. The stories are classic for a reason: love, greed, leadership, underdogs. Kids understand those things:  they fight those battles in the hallways of schools every day. Excite them about the stories and the poetry.  Teach kids to be detectives with the language.

What advice would you give to students performing in Shakespeare productions?

Don’t hold back. Be as bold as you can. And, as Hamlet said, “Speak the speech, I pray you, trippingly on the tongue.” Don’t belabor it. It’s conversation, just like g-chat.

What advice would you give to students who’d like to pursue a career in the theater?

It’s very hard work. You must be disciplined. You must take care of your body (your body is your instrument!) and always work on your skills. You can never stop learning how to be a better actor.

What does "mindful teaching" mean to you? Do you have a mindfulness practice, and if so, how does it help you in your work?

It’s paramount that an actor learn to pay attention. Pay attention to your body and your experiences, and listen to others. You can learn so much by watching others on the street, the bus, in a cafĂ©, anywhere. Pay attention to life within yourself and around you, and use that in your work.

For more information, see!/LeanAndHungry


related posts:

As You Like It (interview)

Radio Shakespeare in 60 Minutes or Less

Women Writers at the Time of Shakespeare (interview)

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