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At the start of the school year, James Mascia’s sixth-period senior English class had no idea what it was getting into.

Before he even knew who they were, or if they were up to the challenge, Mascia signed them up to participate in Text Alive, a program offered through the Shakespeare Theatre Company education department.

The students would be called on to memorize an act from a Shakespeare play — some would be actors and others would be crew members and make costumes, set pieces and work on sound design.

They would have to pitch the setting and time their scene would be placed and vote on the best one that represents the class’s understanding of the play’s theme.

Faced with the assignment, the students weren’t buying it.

“They didn’t believe me,” Mascia said.

“He’s usually sarcastic,” said Asja Bard, 18, one of the actresses who plays Isabella. “I thought he was joking.”

“Whoa,” Desi Wiseman, 17, who will split the role of Angelo with Trevor Pascal, remembered thinking. “It was surprising.”

“But exciting,” Asja said.

“Yeah, then we got excited,” Desi said.

They wouldn’t be on their own.

Vanessa Buono Hope, a 1997 Westlake graduate and school programs manager with the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., stops by once a week to lead workshops and help the actors, almost all without drama training, suss out the scene, work on character nuances and show them tricks of the trade.

Those not on stage are part of the crew, and she works with them, too.

The Westlake students will stage Act 2, Scenes 1 and 2 of “Measure for Measure,” while classes from other metropolitan-area schools take on other scenes, performing the entire play Dec. 14 at Sidney Harman Hall in the District.

Each scene will have a different theme based on the ones pitched by each class.

The Westlake group set its scenes during Woodstock in 1969.

Bringing to life its concept from the theme statement, “Human sexuality is compulsive and uncontrollable,” they choose a time in America’s history when race and gender equality were pushing forward.

Hope said other theme statements include “Everyone’s a villain in somebody else’s story,” using Batman characters, “Despite appearances, the world is not black and white,” using a chessboard design and pieces and “Temptation breaks all bonds,” set in the Prohibition-era of speakeasies.

“Shakespeare doesn’t have to be men in tights,” Hope said.

Staging the play in various times and genres proves that the Bard’s work still has relevance today, she said.

And Text Alive allows students to experience Shakespeare the way the works were meant to be — they are plays. They are meant to be acted and imbued with emotion.

“It helps them understand the shows through the vehicle as it was meant to be,” said Hope, who acted in plays at Westlake while a student there, studied theater at University of Maryland, Baltimore County and earned a master’s of fine arts from Purdue University.

She spent time in Los Angeles working in the film industry before heading back to the East Coast to focus on theater and getting back to teaching, which she started while at Purdue.

Mascia found Hope and the company last year while looking for a guest to beam into his classroom via telepresence, which allows experts and guest speakers to interact with students on a variety of topics through the Internet.

Hope offered to show up in person to hold an “Othello” workshop.

Afterward, she told Mascia about Text Alive, a grant-funded program offered in fall and spring to 12 to 14 schools in the metropolitan area.

He signed up, and his class was the only Charles County school to be selected, he said.

Hope said she believes that Text Alive opens students eyes to Shakespeare’s work through acting it out.

“I like it better,” said Teja Clark, 18, who is heading up the costuming.

She watched her classmates work on the scene with Hope on Westlake’s stage recently.

“When you read it, it can drag,” she said. “Seeing it performed is so much better.”

Mascia said acting out the play is catching on. His other English classes also are performing “Measure for Measure” in class, although they will only perform it for one another.

“This is the first year kids have told me they enjoy doing Shakespeare,” Mascia said.

As an audience member, Teja also has seen her friends bloom on stage.

“They’ve definitely opened up,” she said. “Some of them are actually kind of good.”

Desi, a gregarious basketball player who described himself as “goofy,” volunteered to act in the play and has found he has a knack for the stuff.

Hope told him that he has a great handle on the language.

Taking direction from Hope — “Read it like ‘Damn, she’s fine’” — Desi works his way through a monologue when Angelo realizes he is stirred by the nun Isabella because of her virtue.

“Never could the strumpet, With all her double vigor, art and nature, Once stir my temper; but this virtuous maid, Subdues me quite,” he performed.

When he gets to the word “strumpet,” Hope suggested Desi single out a girl in the front row dismissively.

He laughed at, but liked the idea and added it later in the rehearsal.

In addition to working on the scenes, Hope leads improvisation games to loosen up and introduce students to new ideas they can use in their performance.

“Your first instinct is usually the right one,” she said. “When you’re an actor in a scene you have to have an objective. We want to have a lot of energy on stage, and we want to have fun up here.”

staylor@somdnews.com

If you go
The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Text Alive program is held in the fall and spring. To learn more about it, go to www.shakespearetheatre.org/info/education, and search for “Text Alive.” “Measure for Measure” will be performed 9:30 a.m. Dec. 14 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St., NW, Washington, D.C. Free admission. Westlake High School students will perform Scene 2, Act 1 and 2 from the play.