WOODBRIDGE — When Debbie Roth wanted to make Shakespeare come alive for her eighth grade English class at Ezra Academy in Woodbridge, she had a clever idea: Why not bring in a real actor who has performed Shakespeare on the stage? And so she did – enlisting the aid of Bruce Altman, a veteran actor of stage and screen who also happens to be the parent of an Ezra Academy alum.
Altman readily agreed to set aside time from his busy acting and auditioning schedule to visit the school, and did so twice – once to teach students about Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, and once to critique the students as they performed various scenes from the play.
“For the kids to see a professional actor perform Shakespeare inspires them to read the play in a different way”, observes Roth, who has taught English and Spanish at the Amity Road day school for the past 13 years. “The first time Bruce came, he talked about the play and about the character of Shylock in particular. During Altmans second visit, he asked the students to reconfigure the room to resemble a stage. This isn’t English class – it is an acting workshop,” Altman playfully informed the class.
Asked if he was required to memorize lines for auditions, Altman said, “not for TV or movies, but usually for plays – I usually use a monologue of Richard the Second.”
Calling upon the students to read selections from the play, Jeff Spivack of Hamden shoe Lorenzos speech because, as he explained to Altman, “It is really poetic – about the moon and music. And it is really up to ones own interpretation.” Altman approved.
“That was beautiful,” he said. “Im really touched by it!” Before Spivack performed his selection a second time, Altman suggested that he take a moment to relax his body.
“Take in the moonlight,” he counselled. “Really imagine that moon. This is a really good audition piece – full of smells and feelings.”
Elizabeth Skalka was next to perform. She chose Shylock because, as she explained to Altman, “There is so much feeling between Shylock and Antonio. He has been holding it in for so long – now, he can tell him how he really feels.”
“That was great – did you notice there were moments when your hands moved?” asked Altman after watching her for several moments.
As Altman listened, he applied lessons learned from Jewish texts and Jewish history to the acting process. For example, he told them, “Memorization is great – the great Jewish scholars memorized long passages from the Talmud.”
After Ariel Rock presented Shylocks speech in Act III, Altman asked what the student thought Shakespeare meant when he wrote: “If you prick a Jew, do we not bleed, if you poison us, do we not die?” Explained Rock: “[It means] that Jews are the same as everyone else.”
Altman then engaged the class in a discussion of the blood libel and the myth of Jews poisoning the wells. Altman and family regularly attend the egalitarian Shabbat minyan at Yale University’s Slifka Center.
As the bell rang, Altman wrapped up by telling the class that it is okay to have differing interpretations of the text. “I got some of my best ideas when I saw someone doing something I didnt agree with. So Lital, it is okay to play the part cynically, even though Lizzy is saying, Play it more depressed!”
Altman, who will soon appear in Recount, an HBO movie about the 2000 Bush/Gore Florida election that will air in May, was blown away by the lesson.
“It was a powerful experience for me. I am really impressed with the students. They are so alive, and comfortable responding. Mrs. Roth has done a great job.”
The students shared Altmans sentiment about the lesson. As they filed out of the room for the next period, they offered careful analysis of the class.
“Bruce gave us new insight into how to act and understand and feel the text”, noted Solomon Botwick Reis. Jeff Spivack concurred. “It was interesting to get an actors point of view on such an old text”, he said.
Then, as if to remind the class that they are still kids, Josh Grove smiled and noted proudly, “It was cool to know an actor!”