One recent evening, a dedicated group of local thespians was running through a scene in its labor of love, the works of Shakespeare.
Moments before her death, a guilt-racked Lady Macbeth cried, "Fie, my lord, fie!"
Just then music pierced the air. It wasn't an orchestra heightening the drama.
It was director Danielle Bergmann's cell phone ringtone.
"My b," the teenager apologized, hushing her phone.
But the high school junior could be forgiven for forgetting to mute her phone. For the fourth year, Bergmann and a group of old friends from Cherry Hill's Rosa International Middle School are juggling homework, exams, and assorted extracurricular activities to pursue a shared passion - the plays of Shakespeare.
On Wednesday and Thursday, they will take the stage at Rider University's Shakesperience, a performance festival for students in grades seven through 12.
"What we're really advocating is hands-on, performance-based learning," said Kathleen Pierce, a Rider faculty member coordinating the event. "Why would you just sit and read Shakespeare?"
Two South Jersey teams are regulars - a large contingent from Clearview Regional High School, where Shakespeare is part of the curriculum, and the informal Rosa troupe, members of which attend three different high schools.
Both teams are led by special teachers who use performance and their own passion to get their students hooked on Shakespeare.
At Clearview, under the guidance of Susan Barry, Shakespeare has grown from one English course to two. This year, Barry will take 53 students, including about 30 performers, to the festival.
The courses are popular, but Barry doesn't encourage theater students to sign up.
"I actually look for the kids who don't function well in a regular class setting - the special-ed kids, the kids who don't sit still," Barry said. "They seem to be the kids who connect intuitively with Shakespeare."
Christopher Higgins, 18, a Clearview senior, always loved to read, but not Shakespeare.
"I thought it was pointless," he said. As an aspiring media artist, he was more comfortable behind a camera.
Then he got to Barry's class, where, instead of just reading Shakespeare, students take on the characters and act out the Bard's words. A lightbulb went on.
"You find out all his plays relate to today," Higgins said.
Jenna Kuerzi, 19, is a theater kid who recently appeared in a Samuel Beckett play at the Painted Bride in Philadelphia. After playing Romeo's friend Mercutio at Shakesperience one year, she was offered a Rider scholarship on the spot, but chose closer-to-home Rowan University.
The Shakespeare program is "one of the best things that ever happened to Clearview," Kuerzi said. "Even now, I have a heightened understanding of language."
That same magic touched Lillian Halden's eighth-grade language-arts class at Rosa four years ago. The students had been enthusiastic students of Shakespeare and were up for showing their acting chops in the first year of Shakesperience.
"When they told me when they left eighth grade they were going to do this again, I thought, 'Right,' " Halden said.
But sure enough, year after year she got the call.
Making the trek to Rider this year will be a spirited company of seven - three of the original Rosa members who now go to Cherry Hill East or West; Bergmann, who's at Haddonfield Memorial High; two of her friends; and a Rosa eighth grader now in Halden's class.
The group, which calls itself "Willfully Yours," has spent weeks rehearsing "Death by Shakespeare" - three big death scenes connected by an original narrative of detectives on the case.
One recent night at Rosa's library, Bergmann, who as a rising sixth grader was wowed seeing The Merchant of Venice, was directing - her preferred role.
They were set to run though the death scene in Romeo and Juliet, but leading lady Amy Sparrow, 16, was running late from crew practice.
So Eli Goldberg, a Cherry Hill 16-year-old whose roles in the show include Othello, agreed to pinch-hit as Juliet. His buddy Alex Faye, also 16, of Cherry Hill, was playing Romeo.
Feigning Juliet's drugged sleep, the lanky Eli stretched across a bed of library chairs as Romeo/Alex launched into his famous speech and chugged an imaginary vial of poison.
Then he grabbed Juliet's hand. "Thus, with a kiss, I die," Alex said. "Sorry, Eli."
A stage veteran of four years, Goldberg played it cool. An aspiring musician and a happy ham, he said he enjoyed Shakespeare's humor and getting to act. Plus, as all of them would agree, the chance to be together again.
Faye said they have Shakespeare and their former teacher to thank for that.
"She's changed all of our lives," he said. "She brought Shakespeare to us. If we didn't have that, we might have split up."
The guy who wrote, "Words are easy, like the wind; Faithful friends are hard to find" would have been pleased.
If You Go
Shakesperience will be presented from 12:30 to 3 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday in the Fine Arts Building's Yvonne Theater at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J. Admission is free.
Contact staff writer Rita Giordano at 856-779-3841 or firstname.lastname@example.org.