Fifth graders try on Shakespeare: Acting in Lumina’s Merchant of Venice


by Sandra Moore

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From left to right:  Sandy Moore (Lumina Board), Isaura Ovalle, Marcia Rex (Assistant Principal, Oakview Elementary School), Taylor Young, Madison Waechter, and Levis Mendoza.


Like most Montgomery County schools, Oakview Elementary has struggled with budget cuts. When County funding for “activity buses” was on the chopping block two years ago, many after-school classes and clubs were discontinued. As a result, Assistant Principal Marcia Rex is always on the look out for enrichment programs in the community. When Lumina Studio Theatre, which trains young actors in Takoma Park and Silver Spring, had a few openings for young kids in the fall, Ms. Rex jumped on it.

She had kids like Taylor Young and Isaura Ovalle in mind. Ms. Rex had seen Taylor act with the school drama club. An extrovert with a huge smile, Taylor clearly liked performing, and wouldn’t be put off by Shakespeare. Said Taylor, “I was thinking it sounded kind of hard, but also challenging. I have a good memory for things from my childhood, I knew I could memorize my lines, most definitely.”

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But Taylor’s mom, Felicia, is a single mom with a job in DC. Her daughter couldn’t participate in after-school activities without transportation to classes and rehearsals. When Felicia learned Lumina
could provide transportation, she was relieved and excited about the opportunity. “She’s a big fan of celebrities, like Hannah Montana. But I wanted her to know what goes on behind the scenes if you’re an actor. You have to be a good reader, you have to work well with other people, it’s not just talent.”

“Lumina provided her with a great opportunity to see what real acting is like, but also to be exposed to Shakespeare – at such a young age. I didn’t learn about Shakespeare until high school,” said Felicia.

What about the language in Shakespeare’s plays? “No offense, “Taylor laughs, “but when you first look at it, some of it doesn’t make any sense! But then David (Lumina’
Director, David Minton) explained what Shakespeare’s really saying.” Once Taylor began to understand the play and had her lines memorized, she moved on to her favorite part: character acting. “I had to BE Lottie (one of the play’s young characters),” she explained, “and it inspired me to watch the older kids BE Shylock, or the Prince of Arragon. I loved that.”

Another Oakview student who’s new to Shakespeare–or acting of any kind–is Levis Mendoza. Levis’ family immigrated to this country from El Salvador. “I had never been to the theatre before,” explained Levis’ mom, Ligia. They first went to a Lumina show as the guests of Robin Allen, who tutored Levis at Oakview. Although Levis is a little shy, he thought acting looked like fun. “I told myself, if I could learn the lyrics to my favorite song, I could learn the lines.” In “Merchant” Levis also learned to tap dance under the direction of nationally known tape dancer Baakari Wilder. “Sometimes I’d hear him practicing his dance steps in the bathroom!”said Ligia.

For new actor Isaura Ovalle, participating in Lumina also seemed a big leap. Her single mom, Maria, is from the Dominican Republic, and doesn’t own a car or a computer. Things like after-school drama classes are not in the family budget. But with help from Lumina, Isaura was able to join the weekly classes and prepare for a role on stage.

Maria said, “I’d never heard of Shakespeare before, except a long time ago, I saw the movie of Romeo and Juliet.” Isaura had some difficulty with her script at first. “Some words I didn’t
know, and I had to learn to read faster. But I practiced and practiced until I got it in my mind.”
Ms. Rex had seen Isaura and Taylor perform with the drama club and saw talent that needed to be nurtured.
“I knew a student like Isaura would benefit from being in an environment that encourages love of language. It’s a wonderful challenge for a fifth grader–to read a Shakespearean script,” said Ms.
Rex. “Exposure to the arts is critical, but it’s harder for schools to provide it in this era of high-stakes testing and budget cuts.”

Madison Waechter was also new to Shakespeare. But the challenges she faced were perhaps more typical of Lumina’s core group: how to take on such a demanding after school activity in addition to Irish dance, sports teams, music lessons, and School Patrol. Madison had to give up fall swimming in order to participate in Lumina. Said her mother, Peg Tumey: “Madison has always loved the idea of being a performer and really wanted to try a formal theater class. Lumina seemed like it would be the perfect fit and it was. She received great training and had a terrific experience.”

For Ms. Rex, the rewards for the time invested are clear: “The performance was really professional. When I saw the Oakview kids perform, I was really impressed.”
Lumina’s Minton agrees. “We were so glad to have these new actors from Oakview, many of who might not have participated without scholarship support. Having a chance to act, and especially being exposed to Shakespeare, can really be life changing for young people. They’re all returning for a second play–The Comedy of Errors–for rehearsals that begin in February. We hope they’ll be with us for a very long time.

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About the Author

sandymoore
Sandy Moore, the Kids' Voice columnist, writes for young readers and is a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. Sandy is also a past contributor to Washington Parent magazine, a Board member of Lumina Studio Theatre, and resident of Silver Spring.