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A tale of two films: Artists in their element, artists in schools, sharing their gifts

Mar Parrilla, founding artistic director of Danza Organica, dances on a basketball court, as seen in the film "Living Landscape."Kathy Wittman

As audiences tentatively return to theaters, two companies are using film as compelling reminders that nothing quite matches the emotional impact and authenticity of live performance. Sleeping Weazel’s “Living Landscape” takes an intimate look at the impact that place has on artists and their creativity, while Shakespeare & Company’s “Speak What We Feel” explores the company’s Fall Festival of Shakespeare, which is as much about high school students connecting with themselves as it is about connecting to Shakespeare.

“Living Landscape,” directed by Jessica Ernst, invites four performing artists to talk about and offer brief performances in outdoor spaces that inspire and ground them, especially during the pandemic and this time of political and social upheaval.

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Mar Parrilla, founding artistic director of Danza Organica, dances on a basketball court in the Villa Victoria neighborhood of Boston, inspired by the coqui painted on the ground that reminds her of her Puerto Rican heritage. Longtime Roxbury resident Marshall Hughes, founder and director of Opera unMet, and award-winning director with Roxbury Repertory Theater, talks about the changes in the neighborhood and performs a heartbreaking “The Impossible Dream” in front of the construction site where the Harriet Tubman House, a community center in the South End, once stood. Ellice Patterson, artistic director of Abilities Dance, dances with her walker as she drinks in the sights and sounds of a Brookline park. And actor Keith Mascoll opens his arms to the Tremont Temple in downtown Boston, before reciting Frederick Douglass’s “Men of Color, To Arms!”

Marshall Hughes, as seen in the film "Living Landscape," sings "The Impossible Dream" in front of the construction site where the Harriet Tubman House once stood.Kathy Wittman

“At this time of uncertainty, Sleeping Weazel, as a company, decided to focus on what we could do, since producing a season didn’t make sense,” says Charlotte Meehan, artistic director of the multimedia theater company. The idea for the film was driven by Ernst, Sleeping Weazel’s managing director, who asked each artist to choose an outdoor location in the Boston area with personal significance to them. She worked with filmmaker Kathy Wittman of Ball Square Films to produce “Living Landscape.”

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“Originally, Jessica simply wanted to film performers outdoors,” says Meehan, “but as we talked about it, we decided to provide some context.”

The result is a series of performances interspersed with interviews with the artists, revealing moments of delicate vulnerability and grace. Each of the scenes feels deeply rooted in the individual and the environment as the filmmaker captures sounds — wind, crunching gravel, construction vehicles — while the artists perform and then speak briefly about themselves and their choice of location.

“The creation and capture of each segment was highly organic and improvisatory — performer and filmmaker responding in-the-moment to the work, the environment, and inspiration as it struck,” Ernst said in a statement. “Living Landscape” is streaming for free for a limited time; go to sleepingweazel.com/media-arts-performance.

“Speak What You Feel,” Shakespeare & Company’s documentary (which is having in-person benefit screenings on Nov. 6 at the Tina Packer Playhouse in Lenox) also captures the unpretentious spirit of joy and play that more than 500 high schoolers experience in the Fall Festival of Shakespeare each year.

Started by Shakespeare & Company director of education Kevin G. Coleman more than three decades ago, the Fall Festival invites high school students to experience Shakespeare less as literature and more as a heartfelt experience.

“And that,” Coleman says in the documentary’s opening, “is when kids catch fire.”

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Springfield High School students perform "As You Like It" in 2017 as part of the Fall Festival of Shakespeare.Courtesy of Shakespeare & Company

For 10 weeks each fall, Shakespeare & Company goes into 10 high schools in nearby towns in Massachusetts and New York, building teenagers’ enthusiasm for Shakespeare’s deeply felt stories, confidence in their own voices, and a sense of wonder and discovery about themselves. The program has been replicated across the country and around the globe, and Coleman is eager for high schoolers everywhere to access this opportunity.

“The process is cumulative,” says Coleman. “We begin, not by looking at a text, but by looking at each other. Then we move to what we call ‘Feeding In,’ in which a prompter feeds lines to an actor so that the actors are focused on their screen partners and say things with feeling, responding to the other person’s reactions, not the script.”

Participants then study physical moves, including stage combat, exits, and entrances, and work on technical production components, such as costumes, set pieces, props, and lighting, all culminating in performances of Shakespeare’s plays.

“The only thing high schoolers know is the competitive model,” Coleman says. “This is radically different because the goal is a celebration. It’s about bringing a story alive instead of getting it right.”

While the documentary, directed by Patrick J. Toole, clearly outlines Shakespeare & Company’s approach, it leaves ample room for the student-participants to talk about what the experience means to them. The honesty and authenticity of their reactions, including the surprise at what they discover about themselves and how valued they feel as members of this theater community, are both touching and inspiring.

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Coleman says the goal of the Fall Festival of Shakespeare is not to train individuals to become actors or even subscribers to Shakespeare & Company, although that would be great.

“The goal,” he says, “is to encourage these young people to become more alive, more themselves, by experiencing theater and performance this way. We hope they come out liking Shakespeare, but it’s more important that they like what they discover about themselves.”

Transition at Gloucester Stage

After seven years as artistic director of Gloucester Stage Company, Robert Walsh is stepping down at the end of the year to focus on acting. Walsh had a long history with the company as an actor before stepping into the role of interim artistic director in late 2014 and taking on the role as artistic director in 2015. During that time he has presented 43 productions, directing or performing in eight of them. He also guided the company through the departure of the theater’s cofounder, the late playwright Israel Horovitz, in 2017, after an explosive New York Times story detailed decades of sexual abuse allegations against Horovitz.

Award-winning actress and director Paula Plum, who has performed in many Gloucester Stage productions over the years, will step in as interim artistic director while a search for a permanent leader is underway.

More time to Time Warp

Moonbox Productions’ remounting of “The Rocky Horror Show” has been extended through Nov. 6 at the Harvard Square pop-up space at 25 Brattle St. Peter Mill returns as the delightfully campy Dr. Frank-N-Furter, leading a crowd of Phantoms through this cult classic’s salute to 1950s B-movies with its foot-tapping rock ‘n’ roll score. While throwing props is verboten, you may find it hard not to sing along. Tickets are $20-$35. Go to moonboxproductions.org.

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Company One unveils ‘can i touch it?’

After focusing on community engagement throughout much of the pandemic, Company One Theatre is returning to onstage performances with the development of “can i touch it?,” a new play by Francisca Da Silveira, which will have its premiere at the Strand Theatre next summer.

On Saturday from 11 a.m.-1 p.m., director Summer L. Williams will lead a virtual workshop reading of the play, which focuses on a Black woman’s fight to maintain her dignity and her business in the face of social exclusion and racial inequity. Viewing is free, donations accepted, at companyone.org.