Drama students from a small private school are working to turn a famous Shakespearean tragedy into their own triumphant tale.

University School of Colorado Springs students will take “Romeo and Juliet” to the National Performing Arts Festival at Florida’s Walt Disney World in late February. Some of the students, ages 13 through 18, will also compete in solo and duo performances.

“I think it will throw everyone for a loop,” said University School senior Julia Jones, 18, who plays Juliet.

It’s the first competition for the eight drama students, and everything is timed. “Romeo and Juliet” has been chopped and cut into a 20-minute show. The truncated version includes sword fights, balcony scenes and dancing.

The students picked the Shakespearean masterpiece and it could make them stand out at the event. Most schools bring Disney musicals to the festival, said Nancy Holaday, who leads the school’s theater department.

“We specialize in Shakespeare and sword fighting,” she said.

The festival is in its sixth year, and as far as Holaday knows, no group has ever brought swords as part of the competition. The school had to gain special permission to bring the weapons, and students are only allowed to touch them when performing.

Junior Vincent Brackett, 17, plays Romeo and called the competition a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“I want to show them our strengths,” he said of the sword-fighting.

Some parents and others have suggesting using wood or plastic weapons instead of the heavy metal blades, but the sound is part of the performance, Holaday said as students practiced one of the routines Friday at Springs Reformed Church.

The sword work has been the most challenging part, said 13-year-old Bethany Houk, who plays several roles, including Juliet’s nurse.

“You have to do it at the exact right time or things go really wrong,” she said of the routines.

There have been some minor scrapes and bruises since the drama class started working with stage blades in productions more than a year ago, but no serious injuries. The blades are designed for stage work, not killing, and are not sharpened.

Now in the eighth grade, Bethany has been performing since she was 8 years old, and said the best part of performing are the reactions from the audience, and the playing of a part.

“When I act, it takes me away from all my problems,” she said.

She also likes Shakespeare, because of the language, she said, adding that part of the class is learning what is meant by the words.

The festival is not just about competition, although all receive feedback on performances and winners will be invited to a Broadway competition. Students will attend workshops as part of the Disney experience, Holaday said. Of course, they will also have some free time to enjoy the theme parks. About $1,200 per student covers transportation, meals and lodging for the festival on Feb. 22-26. A fundraiser in about a month will help foot the bill, she said.

The students gave up the final week of the winter holiday to rehearse. They also had to deal with ongoing changes, since the piece must be precisely timed for competition, Holaday said.

“I’m nervous, but I’m really excited,” Vincent said.

University School of Colorado Springs has about 125 K-12 students that attend class two to three days a week and work on home assignments on other days. Parents of elementary students take on a co-teacher role, while older students are prepared to do more on their own, said administrator Jeff Cooper.

Enrollment costs is $2,500 a year for elementary students. Secondary costs depend on the course load, with a full set of classes costing about $3,500 to $4,000 a year.

The school is in its sixth year, Cooper said, and plans to open a campus in Monument next fall. In addition to theater and arts, an outdoor program gives students hands-on skills including rock climbing and hiking.

UPDATE: Students out-performed the competition, read more about how they fared here.


University School of Colorado Springs drama students will perform a sweethearts dessert theater in early February to help with costs for the Florida competition. “That Thing Called Love” will include short versions of “Romeo and Juliet” and “A Midsummer’s Night Dream.” Performances are scheduled for 7 p.m. Feb. 9 and 10, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Feb. 11. Students will perform solo and duo competition pieces before the shows. Tickets are $5, with coffees and desserts available for purchase.

A production of “John Lennon & Me” is planned for the spring to raise money for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

Contact the school at 302-3751. Ticket reservations will be available online at http://uscspages.com/dramalinks.

Contact Kristina Iodice: 636-0162 Twitter @GazetteKristina Facebook Kristina Iodice