Samuel Richards fell for William Shakespeare after an English teacher at Fryeburg Academy encouraged Richards, a budding poet, to study the playwright’s use of words.
“She said, ‘Listen to the music of the language,’” Richards recalled. “I stuck on that for a while. I caught from Shakespeare a love of language. I also caught his innovative edge, which is to say I make up words that don’t exist and expect everyone to understand them.”
Richards, pastor of the of the East Winthrop Baptist Church, has spent the past 20 years sharing his love of language and the Elizabethan-era writer who is widely considered to be among the best ever at using it, with hundreds of children in the Southern Maine Association of Shakespearean Home-schoolers, known as SMASH.
“I teach Shakespeare through performance, so you learn it not just off the page but by acting it out,” Richards said.
The most recent production by SMASH, “As You Like It,” was performed last weekend and continues with shows today, Friday and Saturday at Cumston Hall in Monmouth. Almost all the actors and crew members range in age from 9 to 18.
“This show is one of the funniest shows we’ve done,” said Amanda Chick, of Leeds, who helps produce and direct the play. “We have some amazing young actors. They’ve really taken this show and made it spectacular.”
Chick got involved with SMASH a dozen years ago when she was a 15-year-old home-schooled student. She has worked on seven shows, either on stage or behind the scenes.
“I loved theater, but I wanted to do something different,” she said. “I didn’t want to do theater from a no-Christian perspective.”
Richards said that Christian perspective is at the heart of all of Shakespeare’s plays, because Shakespeare was guided by deep moral convictions of right and wrong.
“A lot of people are astounded to hear how amenable Shakespeare is to the Christian world view,” Richards said. “He was a Christian playwright. He was able to do it without beating people over the head.”
Chick said the themes Shakespeare develops, his characters’ struggle with right and wrong, relationships and personal triumphs and failures, are easily identifiable in contemporary society.
“Redemption is the key theme of every one of his plays,” Chick said. “The Gospel is the story of redemption.”
Richards, who honed his study of Shakespeare at Bates College and then Mansfield College at the University of Oxford, founded SMASH in the early 1990s as a means of contributing to the home-schooling community. Students have come from as far as Bath and Gray to take part in SMASH.
The audience has grown from a few hundred to nearly 1,000. Three shows last week at Cumston Hall in Monmouth drew about 300 people, said Jodie LaChance, of Vassalboro, who is on the SMASH board of directors.
“It’s coming along very well,” LaChance said. “I laughed a lot. The kids have done a very good job with it.”
LaChance has two children who have performed with SMASH. Her son, 15-year-old Evan LaChance, plays the part of Jaques in “As You Like It.” Jodie LaChance said she got involved with SMASH several years ago as way to feed her children’s’ love of theater.
“What I loved about the experience is that they can participate in all aspects, from acting to advertising to set design and music to stage crew,” LaChance said.
Richards is able to stretch the young actors beyond their own expectations while ensuring they succeed, LaChance said.
“He pulls them out of their comfort zones,” she said. “They always rise to the occasion.”
Richards typically chooses a play in the fall. The process begins with several lectures on the play, highlighting its themes, before moving into actual auditions. At first there are a couple of rehearsals per week, LaChance said, but the frequency and intensity picks up as the production draws closer.
The week the plays are presented, known as crunch week, rehearsals last up to seven hours. The students put in about 40 hours, including the productions, during crunch week, LaChance said.
She said parents help as much as they are able. Previously, parents have made costumes or worked on set designs.
“Everyone contributes,” LaChance said. “That’s what makes it unique.”
Evan LaChance, who has been involved with SMASH since 2007, said he enjoys the other actors and crew and performing before an audience.
“I saw a production and I thought it would be cool to try it out,” he said. “I loved it and have been doing it ever since.”
He has enjoyed getting to develop the role of Jaques.
“He runs around the forest, judging what everyone else is doing without actually participating himself,” Evan LaChance said. “You get to play with it a lot.”
Richards said home-school students interested in joining SMASH can contact him at PastorSam@EastWinthrop.org.
Craig Crosby — 621-5642