Colm Feore knows every line in Romeo and Juliet.
Before he played Romeo on stage at Stratford, Feore wrote out the whole tragedy by hand, learning each word like a note in a score.
He did the same when he played Pierre Trudeau on TV, and when he played the King of the Frost Giants in the movie Thor.
But two weeks ago, the 17-year Stratford Festival veteran dropped by Danforth Collegiate to talk all about Shakespeare as part of the non-profit Shakespearience program run by fellow actor and teacher Marvin Karon.
As Feore pointed out, in Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare reveals right from the start that, “Oh, by the way, everybody dies.”
Given that it’s a 425 year-old play with a giveaway ending, students might be forgiven for wondering why it’s still a staple of high school English and drama classes.
Over the 90-minute workshop, Feore, Karon, and noted Shakespeare critic Alexander Leggatt answered the question a half-dozen ways.
“Shakespeare shows us who we are as human beings in the most essential, gut-wrenching way,” said Feore.
“As Hamlet says, he holds the mirror up to nature.”
Leggatt, an emeritus professor who has written several books on Shakespeare, agreed. The way he summed up the plot of Romeo and Juliet, he might have been describing civil wars the world over.
“There’s this feud going on,” he said. “Nobody can remember how it started, nobody knows what it’s about, and really, nobody wants it. But it takes on its own life, its own momentum, and it kills the people we most care about.”
Karon, who went to theatre school with Feore before starting the schools-based Shakespearience program, said another big part of Shakespeare’s lasting power is his use of language.
It’s not because of his “thees,” “thous,” or “forsooths,” said Karon, much as those 16th-century words stick out to first-time listeners. Shakespeare is only one among dozens of playwrights who wrote in the same Elizabethan style.
Leaving aside the 40-odd English words Shakespeare coined, from “eyeball” to “hot-blooded” and “zany,” Karon pointed out that his plays are extraordinarily rich with near-perfect lines, like Romeo’s first capture of Juliet: “Oh, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!”
No matter who you are, Karon said, those are powerful words for anyone who has “walked into a crowded room and seen somebody that makes your heart go ‘bah-boom, bah-boom.’”
After the workshop, and the many snapshots her students took alongside Colm Feore, Danforth drama teacher Tanya Neub said she appreciated how he and Karon brought Shakespeare down to earth.
For one scene, a showdown between Montagues and Capulets, they had students imagine it happening on some very local turf – the food court at Gerrard Square mall.
With Shakespeare, she said, “Once you make it your own, you’re free to play.”
“I really do believe he has every Shakespeare play in his head,” she said. “And he talks a lot about truth, about funding truth on stage, which I think is at the core of a strong actor.”