North Hills students prepare for Shakespeare competition

| Wednesday, March 6, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

Think Shakespeare, and what words come to mind?

Difficult — confusing — irrelevant — fun?

Many students in the North Hills School District would say exactly that as they prepare for the Pittsburgh Public Theater's Shakespeare Monologue & Scene Contest on March 20 on stage at the O'Reilly Theater in downtown Pittsburgh.

Last month, students from elementary school through high school had the opportunity to work with drama coaches from the Pittsburgh Public Theater, or PPT. The professionals came to assist the young thespians with the staging, interaction and emotions of the scenes.

Heather Walter and Tyler Schmitt, both North Hills Junior High School eighth-graders from Ross Township, are old pros when it comes to this competition. This will be the fourth time for Heather and the fifth time for Tyler.

“It was really fun,” said Tyler, 14. “We made it to the finals twice.”

This year, they'll present Act 2, Scene 1 from “A Midsummer Night's Dream.”

“I'm basically chasing him and getting him to love me,” Heather, 13, said.

The librarian when they were at the former Perrysville Elementary School, Doris Stupka, had gotten these students interested in Shakespeare when they were in the fourth grade.

Tyler's and Heather's parents help them rehearse on Sundays, while they meet with Stupka, now the librarian at Highcliff Elementary School, on Tuesdays.

“After you get into it, it's easier,” Tyler said. “It's harder to pick up at first. Then, it makes sense.”

Elijah Gass, an 18-year-old senior at North Hills Senior High School who lives in Ross is entering the competition for the first time. He attended the PPT session to rehearse the “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech from “Julius Caesar” on the auditorium stage under the professional gaze of Ron Siebert, an actor on Broadway, in regional theater and in television for 40 years.

“How are you swaying the crowd?” he asked Elijah. “What do you want the crowd to do?”

The senior had selected Mark Antony's monologue thoughtfully.

“‘Julius Caesar' was the Shakespeare play I read when I was learning to appreciate his works,” he said. “(Mark Antony's monologue) was the one I always wanted to memorize. I liked how he would play on words. I like to make puns.”

For this student, the pauses were as important as the words he spoke. Elijah asked Siebert whether to pause before he called Caesar a friend. His instincts were correct, the coach told him.

Siebert explained how Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter.

“It's like the drum beat, the back beat in a song. It will help you memorize the words,” he said. “The sound of the language is part of its meaning.”

For Elijah's first time on stage, he was rewarded.

“You have a wonderful voice,” Siebert said, “and a good presence.”

In another corner of the senior high auditorium, eighth-graders Joe Kelly and Alexandra Gray and seventh-grader Meredith Madill, all 13-year-olds from Ross Township, were working on their scene from “Twelfth Night.”

“Basically, it's about two drunk guys hitting on a girl,” Joe said.

This is his and Alexandra's first time in the competition. Meredith has performed in the scene competition twice before. This year, she also will test herself in the monologue portion.

“I'm doing ‘Hamlet' and crazy Ophelia in the part when she goes insane,” she said. “I have it memorized. I have it down.”

Joe, having had the role of The Baker in “Into the Woods” in his repertoire, finds safety in numbers.

“It has to be scary by yourself (in a monologue),” he said. “There would be no way to recover.”

Heather, who is eager to advance to the monologue competition next year, sees it very differently.

“Once you get on stage, all the nerves go away,” she said. “Then, you think, ‘This is what I worked for.' It's a good experience.”

Dona S. Dreeland is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6353 or

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