Get thee to the (virtual) funnery: Shakespeare theater camp goes 'inside the box'

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"The play's the thing," Shakespeare's Hamlet famously said, but even the Bard could never have imagined an environment where the "stage" was a series of computer screens, laid out in Hollywood Squares fashion, with the performers hundreds of miles — or even half a world — apart.

That's "the thing" with this year's "Get Thee to the Funnery" Shakespeare summer camp, now in its 23rd year and led as always by Brattleboro author, educator and performer Peter Gould. It's different than ever before because of the coronavirus pandemic, but its mission is the same: to convey respect and love for Shakespeare's plays to the next generation.

Each summer, the youth campers immerse themselves in one of Shakespeare's plays and cap the two-week session with a performance. This year, the 21 campers — 16 from Vermont, five from a youth theater group in Mumbai, India — are meeting through Zoom to rehearse and perform "The Merchant of Venice."

"We have the energy, we have this wonderful staff," Gould said of this year's all-online camp. "It's an unusual year, but it's going forward. We're making the best of a bad situation, and also we're giving each other a lot of slack, and patience, and tolerance, because we're all together living through a situation which we probably have never lived through before."

In a normal year, the campers and staff would meet in Vermont's remote Northeast Kingdom. This year they are meeting on computer screens, or "thinking inside the box," as Gould says. The camp also received a grant from the Vermont Humanities Council to use "The Merchant of Venice" as a "jumping-off text for real serious discussions of race and ethnicity and hatred and violent, threatening speech," Gould said. They are also making a video about the process that will have a YouTube channel live premiere showing on Sunday. Details will be available on the camp web site gettheetothefunnery.com.

The campers start each morning with yoga. They break off into "rehearsal blocks" of two or three at a time, get back together "full-screen" for meditation and more discussion, then return to "breakout rooms" for more rehearsals. Through discussion and exercise, Gould guides the youth to look at Shakespeare both historically and through their own contemporary eyes.

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Audrey Grant of Hardwick, attending the camp for a ninth year, said this one is different for many reasons. "Peter and the counselors have done a really great job in adapting it to this platform," said Grant, a recent high school graduate. "It's really fascinating as a group discovering what the platform can do and what we can do as actors within it, figuring out how to make our screens configure in a certain way, and how to make it look like you're visually talking to people. It's really fascinating. I'm very appreciative that we have this camp still, and we have this ability to see each other and put on a show with each other, even if it's not in person, and I get to meet so many cool people from all over the world."

This year's unique arrangement allowed for the camp to partner with a youth theater group in Mumbai. "I think the fact that we're able to do this over Zoom makes it much more accessible for a lot of people who are really interested in such kind of camps," said Tishya Jain, one of the Mumbai campers. "It's amazing that we are able to be here and experience a camp that's not even based in our own country and meet so many new people that we couldn't have possibly met before."

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The Funnery focuses more on the campers' experiences and growth, rather than the final performance, and embraces an attitude of acceptance, creativity and freedom to explore, even as campers are relegated to their own homes.

"It's a time when we all feel isolated, but I think we can find ways to connect that we never would have expected, and ways to put together a great show," said camp counselor Sophie Lyon. "I think this is truly a new and creative time, and we're going to find some great things that we couldn't have imagined under normal circumstances."

As always, the young drama enthusiasts are pushed to improve what Gould calls the "sign of the four": heart, mind, body and voice. "Heart" strengthens empathy for fellow campers, their directors, the material, Shakespeare himself and the audience. "Mind" is about learning. "Body" draws from Gould's years as a mime and juggler, and refers to the importance of movement and imagination. "Voice" often takes years to master.

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Gould's life is all about creativity. As half of the Gould & Stearns traveling theater troupe, he has performed in thousands of shows with his performing partner, Stephen Stearns, founder of the New England Youth Theatre in Brattleboro, where Gould is also a long-time director.

Gould's young adult novel, "Write Naked" won the 2009 National Green Earth Book Award, and he received a Vermont Arts Council Award in Arts Education in 2016. He earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., and currently teaches in Brandeis' Peace, Conflict and Coexistence Studies Program.

Forty years ago, Gould was a member of the "back-to-the-land" migration to Vermont. His latest book, "Horse-Drawn Yogurt: Stories From Total Loss Farm," is a collection of essays about his decade as a commune founder in Guilford. He's carried that communal spirit through to the present day, and applies it to this summer's unusual situation.

"Hopefully whenever (the pandemic) comes to an end, we'll be able to look out for the other person, walk in the other person's shoes, be compassionate, be kind," said Gould, who is married to state representative Mollie Burke, P/D-Windham 2-2.

"As in juggling, you should think about the throw, don't think about the catch. If everybody here is doing their best to think about everybody else, and to work towards the success of everybody else, you don't have to be so inwardly obsessed about your own success. There's 25 other people thinking about that for you; that's the kind of community that we usually build when we're all together, and that's the kind of community that we're hoping to build in this online situation."


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