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Shakespeare in the park

By Ben Lumpkin Daily Planet staff
Friday June 01, 2001

Students get taste of Elizabethan Era with ‘Summer’ play 


Oxford Elementary School fifth-grade teacher Dana Wahlberg doesn’t have the luxury of speaking in Elizabethan English herself. 

Between lessons Thursday Wahlberg was multitasking at a dizzying pace. With one eye on documents and one ear to the phone, she still managed to fire off comments, commands and questions to her students, her head swiveling back and forth across the room like a tennis instructor’s ball machine. 

“What’s the matter?” Wahlberg asked one student, having somehow picked a crestfallen face out of the flurry of activity in the room, through the tiniest of glances in the girl’s direction.  

“You don’t look too happy,” she said. “You were great. Just a little louder tomorrow.” 

Question, comment, praise, and advice in just 16 words. How Shakespeare’s head would spin! 

And yet it is no doubt thanks to people like Wahlberg that Shakespeare is alive and well in the age of sounds bites and 60-hour work weeks. 

For the last 12 years, Wahlberg has made it her personal mission to involve each student who passes through her class in a Shakespeare production.  

It’s not part of a specially funded after-school program.  

It’s not part of a districtwide arts curriculum. It is one woman’s crusade to expose her students to the work of a playwright some scholars credit with “inventing” the English language. 

“This is the most important thing I do for their education,” Wahlberg said. 

While math, science and history lessons might sail out of a student’s memory by the end of the summer, Wahlberg said, “Every single child in this room will remember when they’re 50 years old that they were ‘blank blank’ in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ ” 

For Wahlberg, it isn’t about giving students a quick taste of Shakespeare. She will accept nothing less than the total immersion that comes from memorizing Shakespeare’s lines and bringing them to life before an audience of peers. 

“My students speak Elizabethan English at home,” Wahlberg said. “They take to (Shakespeare) faster than adults. They just really, really understand it because Shakespeare’s themes are so universal.” 

For the last six weeks, Wahlberg’s 23 students have been busy memorizing lines from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” For the last two weeks they have hiked up the hill to Codornices Park once a day to rehearse in the blazing sun. Thursday morning was dress rehearsal day, in front of an audience of kindergartners. The main performance is at 10 a.m. today at the north end of Codornices Park at Euclid Avenue and Eunice Street. 

“She should teach high school drama,” Oxford student Tim Hewitt said of Wahlberg after the rehearsal Thursday. “She makes us work so hard for just fifth graders.” 

But Wahlberg is unapologetic. All students secretly want a chance to perform on stage, she said, because it gives them a chance to shine. Furthermore, she said, the experience of overcoming stage fright and seeing a difficult performance through to its end does wonders for a fifth grader’s self-confidence. 

Anyone present at the rehearsal could see all the hard work had paid off. The enthusiasm, energy and thought the students put into the delivery of their lines – many of them lines that could twist the tongues of the most literate adult – was enough to make the kindergartners buckle over with laughter. 

It was even enough to spark an uncharacteristic burst of verbosity from Wahlberg. 

“This is the best dress rehearsal I’ve ever seen,” Wahlberg told her students, as the gathered in the shade after the show. “You were tremendously great.” 

An hour later, as they prepared for the start of a new lesson back at Oxford school, the remark still seemed to be ringing in the students’ ears. 

“She thinks we can do anything,” said Spencer Moody, one of the lead characters in the play. 

Hewitt pondered the remark a moment before responding. 

“Basically, we can,” he said.