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Theater studies return to Kenilworth after long absence

Shakespeare’s best teenage characters

Ask any actor under 25. Finding good stage roles is not easy. Sure, there’s always “Our Town” and “The Music Man,” and yes, there are a handful of recent plays that feature strong teenage characters (Jason Robert Brown’s “13” is one). But for super-juicy classic teenage roles, there is no playwright who’s written more great parts for teenagers (“flaming youths”) than good old William Shakespeare.

Here are some obvious ones, and a few surprises.

Romeo and Juliet: Obvious, right? Juliet is stated as being 13, and Romeo, a bit older, probably 17 or 18.

Prince Hal, from ‘Henry IV, parts 1 and 2’: The boy who would be king (and sometimes not) is 16-years-old at the beginning of Shakespeare’s two-part prequel to ‘Henry V,’ in which Hal takes the throne at age 27.

Hero, from ‘Much Ado About Nothing’: She might not have a lot of backbone, but the wronged young Hero sure does know how to make a comeback. Shakespeare did not give her an age, but most scholars imagine her to be about 16.

Joan la Pucelle, from Henry VI, part one: Surprise! Better known as Joan of Arc, Shakespeare’s version of the famous heroine is not exactly flattering when she appears in part on of the Bard’s three-part look at Henry V’s tragic son. Aged 19, she has one of the most surprising monologues in all of Shakespeare, especially if you always though little Joan was a saint.

Miranda, from ‘The Tempest’: Prospero says his daughter was three-years-old when they were shipwrecked together on their magical island. Later, he claims he’s been stranded there for 12 years. Miranda is therefore 15.

Arthur, from ‘King John’: In the play, the villainous John’s nephew is a boy, making the scene where he pleads for his life (“Must you, with red hot irons, burn out both my eyes? And will you?”) all the more horrifying. In reality (surprise again!) though, when King John had Arthur confined to the Tower of London, from which he never returned, the eloquent little “boy” was 15-years-old.

Prince Hamlet: Final surprise. Hamlet wasn’t a teenager. Though a favorite role for teens (male and female alike), according to the gravedigger, if you do a bit of basic math, Hamlet is 30-years-old.


The desks and chairs all appear to be on wheels.

That’s unusual for the average Petaluma classroom, perhaps, but those wheels prove very useful whenever the students at Kenilworth Junior High School need extra space to rehearse, or practice monologues, or act out scenes from a play. In the corner, there sits a pile of plastic construction pipes, from which the class can build a stage stage, creating a dessert or forest, or whatever their imagination requires.

These students know how fortunate they are. For over a decade, there has been no theater class here at all.

But last year, after a long absence, Drama — as an elective — returned to Kenilworth. Since then, the class has proved quite popular with the students. It was, after all, their own strong interest in studying the art of drama that brought the artsy elective back at all.

Drama teacher Nancy Blake taught drama before, back when she was first hired, in 1993. A graduate of Oakland’s Mills College, she earned her master’s degree in English and American Literature, and was active in theater productions all throughout High School and College.

“In College,” said Blake, “I mostly did dance and children’s theater.”

But in 1995, just two years after beginning her job at Kenilworth, the drama elective was dropped. The school needed more English teachers, so Blake was moved into English, while Drama in any form was removed from the schedule. According to Blake, theater studies occasionally rose from the mothballs, only to be dropped again.

Notes Blake, “The years with ‘No Child Left Behind’ were hard on the elective program in general. But that’s starting to change.”

Keith Cameron, a Kenilworth counselor, echoes Blake.

“It had been a popular class in the past,” he confirmed. “There was an opening in the electives. Mrs. Blake had taught it before.” Cameron goes on to say that many of Blake’s drama students from last semester wanted to continue taking the class, but couldn’t because this semester’s class was already full. It looks like that trend will be continuing into next year as well.

“I’m pleased I have enough numbers for another full class,” said Blake of the course that is open to both seventh and eighth-grade students. “We’re full for next year.”

David West, a seventh-grade student, admits he was bitten by the drama bug early on in his life.

“I was in school productions in elementary school,” he recalled, adding that, once he moved up to junior high, “I wanted to do drama.”

According to Kenilworth Principal Bennett Holly, the study of drama brings fun as well as education.

“The students enjoy the class because they get to be creative, wear costumes, read poetry, and learn about literature,” he said. “They can be goofy or serious, and develop their own understanding of who they are, and who they want to be in the future.”

Drama class does not just need to be for theater kids, counselor Cameron pointed out.

“Drama draws kids with natural artistic flare,” he said. “It’s an outlet for them to use artistic talents. And they may not be drama-orientated. Drama allows them to work on public speaking skills, getting in front and presenting. It’s great to see them, at the end of class, and see them lose that fear.”

Shakespeare’s best teenage characters

Ask any actor under 25. Finding good stage roles is not easy. Sure, there’s always “Our Town” and “The Music Man,” and yes, there are a handful of recent plays that feature strong teenage characters (Jason Robert Brown’s “13” is one). But for super-juicy classic teenage roles, there is no playwright who’s written more great parts for teenagers (“flaming youths”) than good old William Shakespeare.

Here are some obvious ones, and a few surprises.

Romeo and Juliet: Obvious, right? Juliet is stated as being 13, and Romeo, a bit older, probably 17 or 18.

Prince Hal, from ‘Henry IV, parts 1 and 2’: The boy who would be king (and sometimes not) is 16-years-old at the beginning of Shakespeare’s two-part prequel to ‘Henry V,’ in which Hal takes the throne at age 27.

Hero, from ‘Much Ado About Nothing’: She might not have a lot of backbone, but the wronged young Hero sure does know how to make a comeback. Shakespeare did not give her an age, but most scholars imagine her to be about 16.

Joan la Pucelle, from Henry VI, part one: Surprise! Better known as Joan of Arc, Shakespeare’s version of the famous heroine is not exactly flattering when she appears in part on of the Bard’s three-part look at Henry V’s tragic son. Aged 19, she has one of the most surprising monologues in all of Shakespeare, especially if you always though little Joan was a saint.

Miranda, from ‘The Tempest’: Prospero says his daughter was three-years-old when they were shipwrecked together on their magical island. Later, he claims he’s been stranded there for 12 years. Miranda is therefore 15.

Arthur, from ‘King John’: In the play, the villainous John’s nephew is a boy, making the scene where he pleads for his life (“Must you, with red hot irons, burn out both my eyes? And will you?”) all the more horrifying. In reality (surprise again!) though, when King John had Arthur confined to the Tower of London, from which he never returned, the eloquent little “boy” was 15-years-old.

Prince Hamlet: Final surprise. Hamlet wasn’t a teenager. Though a favorite role for teens (male and female alike), according to the gravedigger, if you do a bit of basic math, Hamlet is 30-years-old.

Similarly, Blake’s recently resurrected drama class gives the theater-loving kids a deeper understanding of performing.

“I’m learning how to properly act. Like, how to be in a leading role,” said seventh-grade student Alec Fischer.

The class also teaches the more technical aspects of Drama.

Maddie Lewis, a seventh-grade student, said, “You kind of learn the basics, the history of it. It’s more than just the acting.”

Aarav Srivastav, a seventh-grade student, said that his favorite part of the class are the lessons in improvisation.

“In scripted ones,” he said, “there’s no room for making them funny.”

Blake explained that she changes the type of lessons she teaches, depending on the age-group, needs and experience of the students in the class. Generally, the students do two plays each semester, a classic play and one based on an international folktale. The final performances are not open for public viewing, but are presented for the families of the drama class students.

“Last year we did ‘A Midsummer’s Night Dream’ and a Japanese folktale,” she said. “Last fall it was “Christmas at the Cratchits” — modeled on Dickens — and a Chinese folktale play. The last unit we were working on was teen issues. The students were figuring out ways to handle things like peer pressure or cyber bullying. That kind of thing — common teen issues.”

This semester, Blake is thinking of having the students do a shortened version of Shakespeare’s classic, “Hamlet.” Whether that’s to be or not to be is still to be determined, but for the moment, the off-again, on-again drama class is definitely set to continue next year.

For Blake’s students, those past, current and still to come, that a very good thing.