BALTIMORE – Last year, Noah Schechter auditioned for a role in the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival’s teen production of “Hamlet.” The 17-year-old said that his favorite memory of the program was when the director, Tony Tsendeas, walked through the curtains and said, “This is the place to dream.”
“To have a space to play, dream and be creative has really inspired me,” Schechter said.
Schechter is now playing Claudio, a lead role “Much Ado About Nothing,” this year’s play in the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival’s fourth annual teen performance program which opens Friday night, Feb. 23, and runs until March 4.
The program is intended to give local teens a chance in the spotlight, on the stage of a former Episcopal church in Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood that is still equipped with a working organ and wooden pews. But the teens found more than ephemeral fame. They found a place to explore creativity, make lasting friendships and grow as aspiring actors.
Joan Weber, 42, the director of this year’s play, started the program in 2003. “I wanted to bring them together to work with one another,” she said. “Having feedback and experience working with other actors is a critical component of developing as an actor.”
Weber said that a major benefit is that the teens get to work with students from other schools.
“There used to be this rivalry between the city art school and the county art school and now that has melted away, now they are dear friends and work together,” Weber said.
The competition for bragging rights between the two art schools – the city’s Baltimore School for the Arts and the county’s Carver Center for Arts and Technology – has at times been as intense as any on the football field or basketball court
Hallie Angellela, a senior at the city school who plays Hero, the love interest of Claudio, says there is an “underlying tension” between the two schools. “It’s a rival arts school thing, I heard it at school, but for me it doesn’t exist.”
Angellela said she has met some of her best friends, such as Schechter, a junior at Pikesville High School, through the program.
“We all hang out, go out afterwards to get banana pancakes at Golden West on 36th St.” she said. “People here will always be there for me, always will.”
At a dress rehearsal Thursday night, the cast seemed to work well together.
Ben Gansky who plays Benedick plants a messy kiss on Tara Richter-Smith who plays Beatrice, for the last scene, when Benedick finally gets the girl. Ganksy brings a comedic energy to the performance, rolling around on the ground, climbing on the balcony to eavesdrop, contorting his facial expressions and growling parts of his lines.
For Gansky, the teen Shakespeare program may prove to be the springboard for a future acting career. He has performed in every show since the program started in 2003, playing a minor role in “Macbeth” and now one of the lead roles in this performance.
Gansky said his role in “Hamlet” was his big break.
He won a $3,000 scholarship from the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts. He auditioned to get into the Juilliard School, the prestigious performing arts conservatory in New York City, and was invited to the final callbacks.
Gansky is also a presidential scholar nominee, an honorary award given by the White House. If he wins, he’ll get to perform a solo act at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., receive a presidential medallion and perhaps meet the president.
“I can honestly say that I don’t know how I would have achieved it if it weren’t for this program,” Gansky said. “It’s been both a playground and a workshop for me.”
In the rehearsal for “Much Ado About Nothing,” Ganksy’s over-the-top comedy was countered by Schechter’s brooding and intense Claudio. He wears the emotion on his face when Claudio gives his apology to Hero, who he thinks is dead. He furrows his brow, drops the corners of his mouth and stares directly into the audience for extended periods of time.
Only one scene made the actors lose composure.
Terrell Buckson who plays Balthasar, is singing from a balcony but has trouble reaching a high note. He emits a croaking sound, then loses his composure, laughing along with the rest of the cast onstage.
Schechter said getting used to the language of Shakespeare was a challenge at first but he grew to love it. “Definitely had a hard time getting through it and figuring out what the hell I’m saying, but the words are great, it’s fun to work with a text that is so old and yet feels so natural,” he said.