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VSAA, Portland Shakespeare Project team up to present ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

By , Columbian staff writer
8 Photos
Naivy Phan 12, left, and Gloria Galland, 18, help Kai Shook, 17, all of Vancouver, with the finishing touches of their hair and makeup before the school's opening night production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at Vancouver School of Arts and Academics on March 10.
Naivy Phan 12, left, and Gloria Galland, 18, help Kai Shook, 17, all of Vancouver, with the finishing touches of their hair and makeup before the school's opening night production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at Vancouver School of Arts and Academics on March 10. (Roberto Rodriguez for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Though just an hour remained before opening night at the Royal Durst Theatre in Vancouver, the cast of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” rehearsed and prepared themselves without an air of anxiety, but rather one of professionalism.

Thursday night’s performance was the first of six editions of the Shakespeare classic, put on by students at Vancouver School of Arts and Academics, an application-based magnet school within Vancouver Public Schools.

The show is a collaborative effort with the Portland Shakespeare Project, a nonprofit that works with local schools and theater troupes to keep classic works alive and find ways to keep them modern and relevant.

Michael Mendelson, the show’s guest director and Portland Shakespeare Project’s artistic director, said he was amazed with how the students handled suggestions and criticisms that he’d normally be delivering to industry professionals.

“When I was in high school, I never had a production like this. Their willingness to work on this play for 10 weeks, three to four hours a night,” said Mendelson, who has only worked as a guest director once before. “Their diligence to work hard on top of all of their schoolwork, all their other extracurricular activities — it was incredible.”

If You Go

What: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

When: 7 p.m. on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.

Where: Royal Durst Theatre at Vancouver School of Arts and Academics, 3101 Main St., Vancouver.

Price: $5 for general admission and $4 for senior citizens.

For many of the students in the show, this was their first time working with a guest director — let alone one with years of experience in working with professional actors.

“Michael is wonderful to work with,” said Eva Daltoso, a junior portraying Puck, one of the show’s lead roles. “He’s bringing this experience to a whole new environment and is great with providing lots of affirmation.”

Students at Vancouver School of Arts and Academics choose one of six “focuses”: visual arts, dance, literary arts, moving image arts, music, and theater. Though it’s not required to be focused on theater to participate in the play, Mendelson said an existing academic interest in the field makes this performance different than other school plays he’s worked on or observed.

For that reason, he kept his direction of the students relatively similar to how he’d speak with professionals.

“I wouldn’t say I changed all that much about my approach. The only thing we had to differently was, talk about stagecraft, some of the students didn’t have stage experience or an encyclopedic knowledge of the classics,” Mendelson said.

“They all have this kind of artistic sensibility, they all want to lift up each other, make each other great.”

‘On best behavior’

When working with the director, students said they paid extra attention to notes about body language, positioning, and new things that they hadn’t been as exposed to in previous theater experiences.

“It’s so different, everybody is on their best behavior,” said senior Kai Shook, who plays Oberon, the king of the fairies. “We’ve all worked 10 times harder.”

The cast ranged from sixth-graders to high school seniors, an age gap that Mendelson, his actors and other teachers said proved to be more of an asset than an obstacle.

“The younger kids look up to the juniors and seniors, they take lessons from them just like they do from the director,” said Seth Olson, a government, psychology and theater teacher at the school and regular aide in school productions. “It’s a challenge, and you’ve got to find a balance. But they’ve become the mentors.”

For Daltoso, she recalls a time not too long ago when she was one of the newcomers.

“I love working with the younger kids,” she said. “I started getting involved in theater here when I was 11, so I remember looking up to my older peers then and learning from them.”

A larger obstacle in the production, of course, was trouble with absences and interruptions in scheduling during January’s wave of COVID-19 cases. Olson described the handful of weeks as a “revolving door of who was going to be gone.”

Though the interruptions led to a number of late nights and at-home practicing, some of the health and safety protocols proved to be unexpectedly helpful, Mendelson said. Since students had to socially distance on stage, he sometimes couldn’t physically fit the entire cast into scenes or rehearsals.

“The joy of that was that I was able to work with very small groups of people at a time, which the benefit was that I would work with, say, the ‘four lovers’ for a few nights at once,” Mendelson said. “It was like an incubator for each group at a time, they all picked it up so fast.”

Olson and Mendelson hope that VSAA and the Portland Shakespeare Project can pursue another, similar partnership on a show again in the future.

“It helps us grow as an organization, and we can work with young students on classics,” Mendelson said. “It’s a win-win for all of us.”

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