The idea for an outdoor courtyard theatre was always predicated upon introducing Shakespeare for performance. What else logically would you present outside, under the stars, BUT Shakespeare? Mrs. Lehman had never adapted a Shakespearean play for production, but that seemed all the more reason to try it, especially if the school was going to have a new outdoor theatre to show it in.
Once the construction of an outdoor theatre became a certainty, Mrs. Lehman began planning for the inaugural production. She chose A Midsummer Night’s Dream, perhaps the most beloved of Shakespeare’s plays. Its broad appeal, familiarity, romance and lively plot turns were light-heartedly appropriate for Spring.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream kicked off a new tradition for Stephen Decatur High School theatre: Shakespeare Under the Stars each May. Each Spring, students could expect to perform in a play by William Shakespeare, on an outdoor stage, weather permitting. Adaptations would be designed to make Shakespeare’s work more accessible to students and to audiences. Some of the traditions of Elizabethan theatre would be retained, such as flying a flag (white for comedy, black for tragedy, red for history) and the announcement of the play by tapping a staff on the stage floor three times and calling out the title before the play began. The earliest productions of Shakespeare in the outdoor theatre featured sumptuous post-show banquets catered by Phil Cropper.
Performance work was always a challenge as the language of Shakespeare’s plays makes them difficult for modern day students to interpret and understand. What was most gratifying to Mrs. Lehman was students expressing that they had never understood Shakespeare until her class, when they were learning to perform it for an audience. Many students even said they specifically signed up for the class so they could perform in a Shakespearean play.
One of the most fun elements for Mrs. Lehman was costuming these productions. While many were period-specific, others were modernized, such as the costumes for Julius Caesar modeled on The Matrix movies. Through the years, many beautiful Elizabethan costumes were acquired and used over and over again.
Through her years at Decatur, the following Shakespearean plays were produced: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, All’s Well That Ends Well, The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Taming of the Shrew, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Winter’s Tale, Julius Caesar, Measure for Measure, and S: Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Songs, and Soliloquies. A Midsummer Night’s Dream was reprised on the 10th Anniversary of the inception of the outdoor theatre and the 20th, which coincided with Mrs. Lehman’s retirement in 2015. It was the final performance she directed with students at Stephen Decatur High School.
Many of these productions were augmented by music which Mr. Rick Chapman, music teacher at Ocean City Elementary School, graciously arranged, taught, and played for the performances. For “S,” he wrote a song celebrating “the Bard,” but also poking a bit of good-natured fun at how reverentially we approach Shakespeare.
Through the years, many students passed through Mrs. Lehman’s theatre program, gracing the stage in productions of Shakespeare. Many gave stand-out performances in what is always difficult material to perform: Alex Lewis as Julius Caesar, Camas Moore as Shylock, Tom Cappelli as Prospero, Jason Hamilton and Travis Hudson as the Two Gentlemen of Verona, AJ Long and Matt Matrona in A Comedy of Errors, Hannah Lewis and Lindsay Britt in All’s Well That Ends Well, Andrea Matrona as Brutus’ wife, Kim Rossi and Clarke Bliss in The Merry Wives of Windsor, and so many more. Seared into audiences’ memories will be Michael Matrona‘s performance as Bottom in Mrs. Lehman’s final show. Michael played both the longest and most hilarious death scene in the history of performances of the “play within a play” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Through the years, Mrs. Lehman’s adaptations grew better and better. They took on a magical quality as they brought some of world literature’s greatest stories to life in the Gladys C. Burbage Courtyard Theatre at Stephen Decatur High School.