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Shakespeare for everyone

Here’s a question certain to have stymied many a high school English teacher over the years: How does one make the 400-year-old prose of William Shakespeare come alive to a room full of uninterested teenagers?

A call to Amy and Tyrus Lemerande, founders and stars of the Knighthorse Theatre Company, would be a good start. The duo has made it their life’s work to reintroduce modern-day audiences to a Shakespeare who’s not only relatable but – dare we say – cool. That’s quite a lofty goal when your target demographic is famous for finding dense text a total snooze.

The Lemerandes’ philosophy is simple: If the audience doesn’t feel connected or engaged, they’re going to lose interest. By getting Shakespeare off the two-dimensional page and turning a passive audience into active participants, “it becomes more vibrant for them,” Ty said. “It becomes more real.”

Knighthorse is working with students at Parker Academy this week before performing two free, public shows in Eagle Square tomorrow and Saturday. A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be tomorrow; Saturday brings Shakespeare on Demand, in which the audience participates by calling out lines, characters or scenes from any of the Bard’s plays. In the latter, the actors perform whatever’s called out, put it into modern social context and explain how an Elizabethan audience would have understood it. Both shows are at 7 p.m.

The idea to make Shakespeare’s works more digestible to the average audience was born over a decade ago, shortly after the couple met while touring for a different theater company. A friend invited them to perform Shakespeare skits at a Boys and Girls Club benefit in Washington, D.C. On a whim they put 12 scenes together, said Amy, the company’s executive director. It was so well received they decided to turn Knighthorse into a nonprofit and make it their full-time career. Soon after they started making cold calls to schools to gauge interest.

“We wanted to find a way to combine our love of performing, our love of teaching and our love of each other,” said Ty, who serves as Knighthorse’s artistic director. “We want to put it into language that students can wrap their heads around. . . . We ask questions, sometimes they get up on stage with us. It’s very inclusive and in that inclusivity, they’re learning. We want them to have fun so that when we leave these themes stick with them.”

Ty and Amy believe young people – or people of any age, really – would be less dismissive of Shakespeare if his work just had the right translators. While the literature is old, its themes of love, appearance and reality, order and disorder and conflict, remains very much alive, Ty said.

“It’s kind of like eating your green beans; you get the same thing with Shakespeare. People say (to students), ‘You have to read it, it’s good for you,’ but nobody really knows why,” he said. “We say, ‘Okay, I know he’s been dead for 400 years but let me talk to you for 45 minutes.’ These themes and ideas are not dead.”

Ty and Amy created Shakespeare on Demand because it allows people to take in Shakespeare in little doses, almost like a live version of CliffsNotes. It can be a bit intimidating, they said, and requires energy to stay on their toes for an hour and a half straight.

“It’s this strange amalgamation of stand-up comedy, improv, and your ninth-grade English class,” Ty said.

The majority of the couple’s time is spent in classrooms across the country and they’ve even done some touring abroad. The rest of the time they’re performing shows across the U.S., regularly on Cape Cod. They live close to Boston and have two young children.

In addition to his Knighthorse responsibilities, Ty is a commander in the Naval Reserve and is currently assigned to the Office of the Chief of Information at the Pentagon; he recently returned from seven months of active duty in Afghanistan, where he performed a solo version of Hamlet in front of 300 active military members.

While Ty was deployed, Amy picked up the theatrical slack, performing one-woman shows while he was away. Likewise, while Amy was on maternity leave taking care of their now 1-year-old daughter, Ty performed solo.

“It’s a continual discovery on our parts,” Amy said. “It’s figuring out how we can make it work and finding ways to carve out a niche with our family.”

Parker Academy and the Duprey Companies are sponsoring the rain-or-shine events, which cost nothing, though hats will be passed around for the actors. Steve Duprey, president of Duprey Companies, said he hopes viewers are enthusiastic enough to bring Knighthorse back annually.

“I’d love to see us have a Shakespeare festival and this became a noted, annual event in New Hampshire,” Duprey said. “For people who may not be serious Shakespeare aficionados this is very approachable way to enjoy it. It’s great for families, and hopefully we’ll see people respond well.”

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