LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - It might have been a nightclub with patrons enjoying drinks at their tables, applauding a soulful delivery of a torch song, but the performer was a 13-year-old. And in the audience were fifth-graders through seniors in high school — cheering wildly about William Shakespeare.
Adeeja Anderson performed her rendition of Shakespeare's Sonnet 43, singing it to music of her own composition and lingering over a sultry low note at the finish. The audience was captivated, cheering and clapping furiously, with a few appreciative whistles and shouts thrown in for the eighth-grader from Pulaski County's Robinson Middle School.
"It does touch peoples' souls, in the unique way he wrote" the words, Adeeja said afterward. "Some people relate spiritually to that."
The words of a playwright dead nearly 400 years still resonate after all these years, particularly among Arkansas students who packed the three-day Shakespeare Scene Festival held at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Shakespeare's plays and sonnets — and the Elizabethan English in which they were written — carry a fearsome reputation among many students, but no longer among those who took part in the festival.
Logan Howard, 14, an eighth-grader at Robinson, played a lead role — Orlando — in a performance of scenes from the comedy "As You Like It."
"It was like he became Orlando, he was living and breathing it," said Patty Jolliff, director of the Talented And Gifted program — known as TAG — at Robinson.
Logan said his conversion from Shakespeare-phobia was a slow process.
"At first I thought, 'Shakespeare — I don't want to have anything to do with him,'" he recalled. "But then I read his plays."
His immersion in the role of Orlando began soon after he read the script to find out just what he had taken on and found that Shakespeare still has meaning to young people in the 21st century.
"It all fell in place, kind of," Logan said. "I'd never been in a drama before.
"I guess it's his way of writing things — once you can understand it, it kind of flows," he said. "You have to enunciate slower. I would practice that over and over."
The youngsters' development of an interest in Shakespeare and his works is today's re-enactment of what has been going on for decades, if not centuries.
Roslyn Knutson, an English professor at UALR, has run the Shakespeare Scene Festival since it began in 1998. She isn't sure a recent survey showing that fewer top universities require Shakespeare courses actually reflects any declining interest in Shakespeare. Instead, she said, it could simply reflect the trend at colleges and universities to offer students greater flexibility.
UALR does not require students to take a course in Shakespeare, and that's fine with Knutson.
"That way, I don't have students who don't want to be there," she said.
In fact, student interest led to her role as the English Department's specialist in Shakespeare.
Knutson began teaching a course in Shakespeare over 25 years ago, she said, because "students could be counted on to take the class when many other upper-level courses in British Literature pre-1800 were under-enrolled."
The depth of Shakespeare's writing was also demonstrated to the students who participated in the festival, and who also got to watch youngsters from other schools perform scenes and recite — or sing — sonnets.
Logan said his eyes were opened when, before he and his Robinson classmates took the stage, they got to watch fifth-graders from North Little Rock's Belwood Elementary School perform scenes from the same play.
"I got a different thing from their play, even though I'd been practicing (the same) play," he said.
Rick Kron, who teaches at Belwood, said his daughter opened his own eyes to Shakespeare's appeal to younger children. She was in the fifth grade when he had to choose a summer-semester course as he pursued a teaching degree.
"She said, 'Take this course: Teaching Shakespeare Through Performance,'" Kron said, and both he and his daughter attended the sessions. "I saw how she could take it all in, and thought, 'Wait a minute, this will work with fifth-graders,'" Kron said.
Now his classes read a full version of a Shakespeare play every year, then discuss it "and write our own version."
"They all find it interesting — some explode," he said. "What's neat is we always tie it up into what's going on today."
The youngsters have no problems relating situations in the plays to their own lives, Kron said, and that was definitely the case with the play he chose for his students this year: "As You Like It."
"The main character is flustered around this girl, he can't talk," Kron said. "Even fifth-graders have boyfriends and girlfriends and can relate to that."