PPT’s Shakespeare Scene and Monologue Competition

Maya Lapp

PPT SHAKESPEAREPittsburgh Public Theater has reached its 21st year of the annual Shakespeare Scene and Monologue Competition. Growing from the seventy-five contestants at its inception, this competition now hosts over 1,000 participants, all vying for a spot as one of the twenty-five finalists. The competition admits competitors performing in two separate categories—the scenes and the monologues from the Bard’s plays. They are split into a lower division (4th-7th grade) and an upper division (8th-12th grade).
PPT’s Shakespeare Competition gave me my first ever experience on the stage. It opened my eyes to a whole new world. It also introduced me to Will’s plays in a way I never could have otherwise experienced. Many people read Shakespeare’s works for school, but very few have the chance to interpret his words themselves and bring them alive on a stage. The Competition sparked my love for both theater and the Bard, and that is something that will never leave me. This year, however, I had the chance to help introduce new students to his work. My elementary school teacher, Mr. Bassett, was the one who encouraged me to do the Competition, and this year I helped him with his newest fourth-grade recruits. (How much I helped is debatable, but I was in the room while he helped them, at least!) It felt so good to be able to do for them what he did to me when I was their age- introduce them to theater.
All contestants had to opportunity to perform in the O’Reilly Theater, but only the chosen twenty-five had the chance to portray their characters this Monday at 7:00 PM for a sizable audience. Although a winner was chosen for each of the four categories Monday night, it is performing as a finalist that is the true prize. This year Mr. Bassett’s four fourth grade students, who were performing the very first scene in King Lear, were selected as part of the twenty-five. I can think of no better experience for a group of actors who have never before performed on stage. When I came to watch Monday night, one of the girls said to me, “I can’t believe you came to watch!” I told her I wouldn’t miss it for anything.
KDKA news anchor Ken Rice, who has had the privilege of kicking off the competition’s finals for the past several years, was again present Monday night, starting the evening with a chilling quote from King Lear: “This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen.” The Shakespeare Competition finals often seems to be subjected to the harshest of weather, and few nights have been as cold as Monday was; even so the theater was filled with spectators. Fortunately, the only fools or madmen found Monday night were confined to the stage.
This year’s selection comprised of many more young actors than usual. Although they are adorable to watch on stage, I believe it would have been nice to see a larger percentage of older, and therefore more capable, actors perform. However, just like every year, there was amazing talent on the stage all around, and it would be wonderful to know where this experience takes these actors in their blooming career. As always, I had a wonderful time watching the performances, and there were quite a few monologues so well portrayed that I noted down in hopes that I can memorize them myself in the future.
After all the contestants had performed and the judges returned from a brief and private meeting, a spokesman stepped forward to announce this year’s winners.
Carolyn Jerz, who portrayed Ariel from The Tempest was unanimously voted as first prize for the Lower Division monologues. She has recently taken part in a production of Great Expectations, and greatly outshone her competition. Two boys from Pittsburgh Colfax, Benjamin Godley-Fisher and Luke Chinman, were pronounced the winners of the Lower Division scenes for their rendition of Romeo and Juliet’s famous balcony scene (quick side note for any other Shakespearean nerds in this world: Shakespeare did not know what a balcony was, and therefore this scene was not originally intended for such a stage). During their time in the spotlight I had noted that Romeo in particular gave a stunning performance.
The Upper Division monologues ended with a tie between Maddie Ince as Phoebe, from As You Like It and Larry McKay, portraying King Henry, from Henry V in one of Shakespeare’s most famous historical monologues where the King bolsters his troop’s morale for their final battle. Finally, Ben Nadler and Sriparna Sen took the prize for the Upper Division scenes for their slapstick comedic rendition of the very first scene in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as Lysander and Hermia plan to elope in the night. As one of the judges mentioned, “Shakespeare is rolling in his grave over that interpretation!”
Unfortunately, Mr. Bassett’s students were a nervous to be in front of the huge crowd, and although they performed well, it was not a flawless run. I was happy for them anyway, and, once they get over the disappointment of the night, they will be glad for the experience, as well. I am impressed by anyone who has the guts to get on stage to relay the words of the most famous poet in history. It is good for people to experience Will’s works as they were meant to be seen—not as words in a book, but as actions and emotions on a stage. It is only then that we can begin to understand what has made him immortal in the world of literature.