The walls of the black box rehearsal space at Huntington Theater in the Fenway are adorned with pronunciation guides for words like “knave,” “dowry,” and other dated terms, with the phonetic spellings displayed below the definitions.
The Elizabethan era vocabulary lesson is meant to help students in the Codman Summer Theatre Institute interpret their lines from “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” the Shakespearean play being staged this week on Thursday (July 26) and Friday at 7 p.m. at the Boston Center of the Arts’ Calderwood Pavilion in the South End.
Now in the midst of its 10th annual summer campaign, the collaborative program is open to students and alumni from Dorchester’s Codman Academy. Members of the current cast, ranging in age from 15 to 22, attend three-hour rehearsals Monday through Friday under the tutelage of co-directors Meg O’Brien and Alex Smith from the Huntington Theatre Company.
In an interview with the Reporter, O’Brien spoke to the HTC’s role as a founding partner with Codman Academy, explaining that Meg Campbell, a co-founder of the school, wanted to use theater as way for students to work on their literacy and comprehension skills.
“With dramatic texts, there’s often more white space [on the page], so it’s less overwhelming,” she said, adding that in addition to reading comprehension, theater workshops also provide students other key intangibles. “It’s really special. It gives them a chance to work on public speaking skills, self-confidence – skills they can take into any job in life.”
“The Merry Wives of Windsor” centers on a knight’s endeavors to seduce two mistresses, who in turn work together to outwit and humiliate him. O’Brien said she and Smith chose the play in light of the ongoing #MeToo movement, for its messaging about female empowerment and gender roles.
“I was struck by how powerful the women are in [the play], and how they can accomplish goals without their husbands,” she said. “It’s fun to have conversations with young men about what it means to treat women as objects and what’s wrong with that,” he added, “and how to have conversations about mutual respect, consent, and things like honesty and transparency.”
Arie Dowe, a 16-year-old rising junior at Codman Academy, said she noticed some familiar misogynistic behavior in the interactions between characters. “You see the ways that men treat women, both before and now,” she said.
Jonathan Joissaint, 16, agreed with Dowe’s observations. “There’s the whole theme of how husbands try to rule over their wives…those [old gender roles] are still relevant,” he said.
While some of the terminology from the Shakespearean vernacular might be foreign to high schoolers, the themes — jealousy, deceit, sexism — are evergreen issues that teenagers deal with on a daily basis. As one student put it, “the things that he’s writing about are still happening today.”
As such, connecting with one’s character often means drawing from personal life experience, according to Codman Academy alum and Four Corners native Zachary Taylor-Kelley.
“A lot of the times most of the characters are people you know, or people you see around, or they can also be a representation of things you see in yourself,” he said.
Most students said that memorizing lines was the biggest challenge they face, and many said getting to know kids from other grades was their favorite part about the experience. Whereas similar programs would normally cost thousands of dollars each summer, the Codman students instead receive a small stipend for participating, along with a welcome respite from summer jobs. But for some, the program’s impact goes even deeper.
“It definitely saved my life,” said 22-year-old Latasha Snyder, a Codman Square native and eight-year veteran of the program. “I was on the wrong path before I got here...I knew a lot of kids who didn’t have things to do in the summertime, and they would end up in a lot of trouble.” She said that the structure and routine of theater rehearsals give kids a safe environment and an alternative to the streets during the dangerous summer doldrums.
“I love how it gives the city youth opportunities that you wouldn’t find anywhere else...I had no idea that I could act until I met [O’Brien and Smith], so they helped me expand and explore in new directions.”
Last year, the Huntington-Codman collaborative program was a finalist for the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award. But rather than recognition like that, O’Brien said, the most rewarding part of the job comes in those moments when a students finally understand a line, or make a breakthrough with their characters.
“That’s one of the reasons why I love working with teenagers; there’s always that moment of discovery, or that moment of joy.”
The sense of pride and self-confidence that stems from those revelations is key. That’s what the program is about, she said. “It’s a way to prove that they can accomplish anything they set their mind to."