ARTIST IN RESIDENCE— Paul Schweigert spent two weeks with ACSA students to expose them to the performance of Wiliam Shakespeare comedies and tragedies.COMEDY OF ERRORS— Heidi Okleasik, middle, plays Antipholus of Ephesus in the play "A Comedy of Errors."

Visiting artist brings Shakespeare to Nome

The students at Anvil City Science Academy recently had an experience that took them into costume, back in time, and across the world. Visiting artist Paul Schweigert spent two weeks in early May at ACSA through the Artist in Schools program, working with students on the plays and language of William Shakespeare, which culminated in a performance last Friday evening. ACSA’s 61 students performed in one of three productions: Comedy of Errors, MacBeth, and A Midsummer’s Nights Dream.

“It was awesome to see the kids’ transformation,” Schweigert said. “When I asked them, on the first day, what they knew about Shakespeare, no one raised their hand. And ten days later they’re performing the plays with the original language.”  Although he condensed the plays to about a half hour each, Schweigert said he remained true to Shakespeare’s words and kept the scenes that moved the plots along.

If you’d asked a young Paul Schweigert what he wanted to be when he grew up, the words actor, director, and Shakespeare wouldn’t have come up. Not even close. “I was an athlete, on my way to being an Olympic skier,” Schweigert said.  

Schweigert was born and raised in North Pole, just outside of Fairbanks. After high school he attended the University of Alaska Anchorage to study computer science and engineering. But his heart wasn’t in it. A friend encouraged him to audition for a play, which he did, and he was hooked. He went on to graduate from UAA and get a Master of Fine Arts in Acting from Penn State. He returned to Alaska and was cast in the coveted role of “Hamlet.” He still works with the director of that production, and their group travels around Alaska to bring theater experiences to schools.

For each of the ten mornings Schweigert spent with the students, he told them the story of one of Shakespeare’s plays. Then he quizzed them at the end of the day. “They remembered everything,” Schweigert said, “Even days later they could tell me the plot, the characters, where it took place; it’s incredible what young minds can soak up. They’re like sponges.” Schweigert stresses the importance of knowing the stories first, so that the language and the actions make sense. “Otherwise the language is very difficult; you need to know why you’re saying what you’re saying.”

As part of their language and reading studies, the students spent time reviewing the plots of their three plays before his arrival. And in preparing for the productions, Schweigert expected a lot from his young actors. “If they see me here, giving 100 percent energy, it motivates them. I take it seriously and I expect them to take it seriously,” he said.

The hard work paid off, and the students were visibly pleased with their performances, including those who had many mouthfuls of lines to memorize.

Schweigert’s residency was provided by the state Artists in the Schools Program, which is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Alaska State Council on the Arts, and the Rasmuson Foundation. ACSA parent Marguerite La Riviere wrote the grant that was awarded the residency. When asked how he was able to motivate so many kids, Schweigert said, “When that light bulb goes on, they start to experience things outside themselves. And they love it. The method is to trick them into learning something by making it fun. Even kids who are shy or reticent about speaking and performing got to a place where they did it. I’m really proud of them.” As for his favorite Shakespeare play? “It’s hard to beat MacBeth, isn’t it? It’s got everything!”

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