Most high school students shudder at the thought of Shakespeare. However, some embrace its challenging language, intrigued by its eloquence. One example is Buffalo Seminary junior Eliza Hopkins, who showcased her acting skills after winning the English-Speaking Union (ESU) Niagara Frontier Branch regional Shakespeare Competition held at the Saturn Club. She then advanced to the ESU Shakespeare Competition held in New York City on April 23, Shakespeare's birthday.
Eliza's interest in Shakespeare started in high school when she took theater classes, with teacher Suzan Drozd igniting her passion to act. With her teacher's guidance, Eliza felt confident to approach the stage and compete.
"Once I got here [Buffalo Seminary], and I was taking Foundations of Theater with Ms. Drozd, I thought I should maybe try out for a play," Eliza said. "The first play happened to be ‘Romeo and Juliet.' I tried out and got the part of Friar Lawrence. That was really where my love began. ‘Romeo and Juliet' was the first play I acted in, so I was exposed to Shakespeare right when I began to develop acting skills."
In February, Eliza arrived at the Saturn Club eager to wow the judges, and that she did. She competed against 11 other area students. With her captivating performances of Sonnet 109 and "Richard III" monologue, Eliza received first place along with advancement to the nationwide competition at Lincoln Center in New York City.
Since 1983, the National Shakespeare Competition has promoted speaking and analytical skills through the exploration of Shakespeare. Regional winners received a two-day trip to New York City, which included an improvisation workshop at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, tours around the city, a cast party and lunch at the Juilliard School.
Fifty-eight actors performed at the national competition. The students hailed from the Bronx to Hawaii.
"At first, everyone was kind of nervous," Eliza said. "There were a lot of kids visiting the city for the first time, and they were sort of blown away by everything."
Eliza said she felt that the competition was secondary to the interaction with other students.
"It wasn't really about the competition," she said. "It was more about getting to know people. The actual competition was a very small part of everything we did. Once everyone was there, it was like we had already won in a sense. We were already among the top 60 students. It was a very special atmosphere where we were all appreciating each other's talents."
During the competition, the judges evaluated the performances on physicality, effective use of movement, voice and ownership. Costumes were forbidden, and the performers were not even allowed to change their hair between the sonnet and monologue. Accents also were not allowed.
Eliza describes the setup: "It was like crossing a river because all of the people who had yet to perform were sitting on one side and then after you performed, you sat on the other side. It was like you earned your place."
After everyone performed, 11 were selected to move onto the second level. These students performed their pieces for a second time but also received a random monologue with only 10 minutes to prepare followed by a performance in front of all the other competitors and judges.
Eliza recalls the most memorable part of her experience.
"The most magical part was when we all learned this Zimbabwean song in the Tisch workshop," she said. "After the competition, when everyone was coming up onstage to receive their certificate of participation, we all started spontaneously singing that song in different parts and harmonies. We had all worked so hard, and then we were all unified in some way."
Hundreds of years after his time, Shakespeare continues to unify people from various places to appreciate his influence on acting and contribution to theater.