Alejandro Stepenberg, a senior at Northwest Yeshiva High School, is living a theatrical dream.
He recently placed first out of approximately 200 contestants in a regional Shakespeare competition hosted by the English Speaking Union of the United States, which featured student competitors from 11 Washington schools. He will fly to New York City to compete in the nationals round taking place April 21-24.
“It’s very exciting,” said Stepenberg. “Only recently, it hit me what I have to do. Someone I’ve not met comes up to me every day at school and says ‘Congratulations,’ and it’s an amazing feeling.”
“I just think he deserves it,” said Ilana Blatt, Stepenberg’s high school drama and English teacher. “He’s an outstanding teen actor. He doesn’t act, he reacts. He’s not trying to play a character, he can really find a character, which is amazing to me, and he’s so driven and so focused that he works a lot harder than just about anyone I know. He works at it like it’s his job.”
The ESU sponsors a national Shakespeare competition each year for high school students. Each school is allowed to choose one student for representation in the regional round, and the winners are flown to New York for an all-expenses-paid trip to compete in the nationals.
“They’re sending him on a great trip,” said Blatt. “He’s got a hotel, and they’re giving him free workshops in movement, speech, Shakespeare, and taking him to see a Broadway show.”
Both Stepenberg and Blatt each received $500 and a leather-bound copy of The Illustrated Shakespeare.
“Following the competition is a dinner cruise around Manhattan,” added Stepenberg. “Also, when and if I were to place third, they would give me another check for $500. If I placed second, they’d give me a check for $1,000, and if I placed first I’d spend a summer with the British Academy for Dramatic Arts.”
Stepenberg said it would be “amazing” to study in England and that he had briefly considered applying there to attend university.
“They rarely accept anyone under 18, and seeing as I’m 16, it’s very difficult,” he said. “It’s something I’d love to do, maybe in the future, even if I don’t place first.”
For the competition, Stepenberg was required to perform 20 lines of one monologue and one full sonnet. His selection featured Hamlet’s famous speech from Act 2, Scene 2, which begins: “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” He performed Sonnet 106.
“Last year I didn’t place,” Stepenberg said, “and the people who won last year had the really loud, fire-and-brimstone pieces. I was trying to think of a piece I could use that would actually have something to it as well, and realized I had been doing these two since October” in preparation for college auditions.
Stepenberg has taken a keen interest in Shakespeare since the beginning of his theatrical career.
“The stories he wrote [so many] years ago are just as pertinent today,” he stated. “Ian McKellen made a ‘90s film version of Richard III about a fascist Britain. Any good playwright chooses words with care, and if we consider Shakespeare to be a good playwright we have to understand how powerful his words really are.”
Stepenberg has performed in four of Shakespeare’s plays already. He has played Duke Frederick in As You Like It, Biron in Love’s Labors Lost, Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet and his personal favorite, the title role of Richard III — a dream come true when he got the part.
“When I found out, I walked quickly out of sight of the cast and ran down the hall screaming,” he said. “I was so happy. I read Richard III eight times and wrote all around the edges and margins of the paper.”
Stepenberg spent five weeks over the past summer developing his craft at the North Carolina School of the Arts, where he studied the Stanislavski technique.
After returning from the competition, he will play Macbeth in the Seattle Shakespeare Youth Theatre’s “Short Shakes” production of Macbeth this spring. In addition, he will play Gatsby in his high school’s production of The Great Gatsby in June, to be performed at the Stroum Jewish Community Center.
“I’m looking more forward to MacBeth, partly because I love the tragedy-histories the most,” Stepenberg said. “One of the things that makes him so hard to tackle is that many times he says, ‘I know that what I’m doing and thinking is wrong,’ yet he still does it, and to come up with a positive reason as to why he does it, despite knowing it’s wrong, is a very interesting question for me to tackle.”
Stepenberg also will co-host his school’s talent show on Thurs., March 22 at the Mercer Island JCC, in addition to directing one-act student productions and performing his monologue from Hamlet.
Andrew Cardillo is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.