Children went into the URS Center for Performing Arts and in minutes became masked dancers, wizards and knights.
The first Juilliard Juniors event, “Mask, Magic and Mischief,” took place on Saturday at 2 p.m., at the URS Center for Performing Arts.
When children came in, they were handed masks, wands or foam swords by Aiken Community Playhouse Youth Wing volunteers.
These props were used, to their great excitement, when Helen Cespedes, Juilliard drama student and mistress of ceremony, called all the young actors onto the stage.
“Welcome, all you Romeos and Juliets,” she said, as they piled on.
The rest of the Drama Division, the group that was putting on the event, divided up the children based on their props.
The Juilliard students warmed the children up, and playtime began.
Shakespeare's “Romeo and Juliet” was chosen as the center for the event.
“The characters are young, so it might make it easier for them to connect to them,” Kerry Warren, fourth-year, drama student, said. “They're 13, 14. And I know the kids are only 7 and 8, but it's good to have the characters that are not that much older than you to relate to. It would be different if we did 'King Lear.'”
The first group up was the Aiken Masketeers.
Jeremy Tardy, also a fourth-year drama student, as Romeo and Warren as Juliet rose to reenact the young, star-crossed lovers' first encounter.
Romeo and Juliet first met eyes through masks at a ball, so what Cespedes did was get her little actors up and dancing.
The mood shifted, as she settled her dancers down.
Tardy and Warren locked eyes and touched palms, i.e. “holy palmer's kiss,” as Juliet said in Act I, Scene 5.
To help understand this moment, the drama students had the masketeers partner up and touch their palms together. The kids experienced this for only a couple minutes before going back to their dance scene.
The masketeers took their bows, and the Wizards of Aiken Place readied their wands.
“One of the most magical things actors do, is they transform like that from one character to another,” Cespedes said to the young players.
Students Brittany Vicars, Samuel Lilja and Sarah Hunt all came on-stage to show just that. When Cespedes pointed her wand at one of her friends, he or she changed before the children's eyes.
For example, when the wand fell upon Lilja, he took the Romeo role from Tardy and recited part of Romeo's monologue from the famed balcony scene.
While one child got to have fun toying with the actors, doing exactly what Cespedes did, the university students got to poke back at their young visitors.
Cespedes gathered the “wizards” up. Then, Vicars, Lilja and Hunt took turns, pointing their wands and shouting out words at the group. When the word “happy” was commanded, for example, Cespedes and the wizards had to smile, laugh and jump around.
This group bowed out, letting the mischief of The Knights of the Aiken Table begin.
The focus came back on “Romeo and Juliet,” but, this time, Tybalt, Juliet's cousin played by Danaya Esperanza, and Mercutio, Romeo's good friend played by Ali Sohaili, took the upstage court. The matter was serious, as the two pulled out their foam swords and fought in a stern battle, one that the children jumped up and, even, tried to join.
Cespedes reigned these young fighters back in, and the proper steps were taken.
The “knights” were instructed in basic sword fighting – face each other, touch swords, big 'C' down and big 'C' up – and, then, instructed in how to act, they attacked – swords tucked under arm and a tad emotional.
This final group were granted its bows, as well.
The day finished out with more transforming and some cooling down.
Betty Ryberg, Juilliard in Aiken vice chair, eagerly watched from the front row.
“It's interesting, you realize how much kids love improv, because its not improv to them. It's their life,” she said.
Ryberg introduced the event. She also announced the winners of Juilliard School and Aiken Standard's “Masks, Magic and Mischief” coloring contest. Jada Smith, 4, Allie Harm, 5, and Hunter Elle Creasy, 6, were called to stage and presented with their entries.
They won Juilliard in Aiken lunch sacks and T-shirts, as well as front row tickets to the Juilliard Juniors' performance. The winners will be published in the paper, and all entries will be online at a later date.
Every child on Saturday got to take home a mask, wand and sword.
The Aiken Community Playhouse Youth Wing also passed out programs.
“It's been so much fun,” Kenneth McCormack, who recently appeared in “Broadway Bound,” said. “It's cool to see theater kids outside of us, because it so rarely happens.”
McCormack and his fellow actors from the Playhouse will help usher the Drama's Division's upcoming shows on Monday and Tuesday.
Sarah Grace Wilson, Juilliard alumna, is the division's director, and David Gaines, Drama Division coach and accompanist, will accompany the division during its stay.
Both performances will be at the URS Center, 126 Newberry St.
Monday's performance will be at 8 p.m., and costs $10, $20 and $30, while Tuesday's show will be at 2 p.m. with tickets being at $5, $15 and $25. Students are admitted free to both performances.
Tickets can be bought online at www.juilliardinaiken.com or by calling the URS Center's box office at 803-648-1438.
This is the fifth year for Juilliard in Aiken.
Today at 2 p.m., the Yang Dugan Duo, violinist Charles Yang and pianist Peter Dugan, and the Pisticci String Trio, violinist Fabiola Kim, violist Jocelin Pan and cellist Patrick McGuire, will perform for free at St. Mary's Help of Christians Catholic Church.
At 6 p.m., Paul Jacobs, organist and Juilliard School's organ department chair, will headline “The Sublime Program” for free at St. Thaddeus Episcopal Church.
For more information on Juilliard in Aiken, visit www.juilliardinaiken.com.