"And if mine eyes can wound, now let them kill thee." The actress stands alone on the big O'Reilly Theater stage, performing Phoebe's monologue from As You Like It. Later, two actors play Romeo and Tybalt, circling each other with prop swords. "Either thou or I or both must go with him," one threatens, and after some swift stage combat, the other falls to the floor.
It sounds like Shakespeare in the Park, but it's Pittsburgh Public Theatre's Shakespeare Monologue Contest, and the actors are fourth- through 12th-graders. The Public's education director, Rob Zellers, has organized the contest since 1994, based on an idea from a staffer who participated in a similar contest as a kid.
The competition is less about building young actors' resumes than simply giving kids a chance to experience the theater. "I'm not in the business of training actors," says Zellers. "We attract those who sometime in their lives were touched by a performance and want to try it out."
That first contest attracted 75 participants; this year's drew 1,000. Winners were chosen from among 25 finalists by judges including Public Theater artistic director Ted Pappas, theater critics, and two cast members from the Public's current production of Cabaret.
The preliminary auditions, held Feb. 8-9 on a stage set for Cabaret's Kit Kat Klub, matched the level of chaos found backstage at any children's theater, school play or recital. The bathrooms were clogged with costume changes. Parents, teachers and drama-club leaders struggled to keep order.
Each school had a time slot (kids arrived as classes, clubs or individuals); students performed before their peers, who sat in the first few rows of the mostly empty theater.
The younger kids radiated excitement, but many of the older kids seemed quite focused. "I really like it because you get to go in and be judged, which prepares me for future auditions, rather than going in and just performing," said Emily Kolb, an eighth-grade finalist from Rogers Catholic School who did a monologue from Hamlet.
Some contestants dressed in costume; others performed in jeans, and propless. Though there were nerves and a few forgotten lines, the kids were impressive in their ability to retain and understand Shakespeare's work. "These kids get out there in some dorky school uniform, and all of a sudden they're Lady Macbeth and Macbeth, arguing," says Zellers. "It amazes me."
In the lower division (grades 4-7), the award was a tie between Margaret Booth (Liberty School), as Phoebe from As You Like It, and Nadia Cook-Loshilov (Independence Middle School), as Joan La Pucelle from Henry VI Part 1 (Cook-Loshilov, it's worth noting, is a veteran of local professional stage productions). In the upper division (grades 8-12), the winner was Alec Silverblatt (Winchester Thurston), as Brutus from Julius Caesar.
The two "scene" winners were Ann Coufal and Emily Gup (CAPA, The Merry Wives of Windsor), and Maria Veres and John Flynn (Aquinas Academy, As You Like It).
"If there are 1,000 kids and you're one of 25 [finalists]," says Zellers, "then as far as I'm concerned, you've won."