Cheers to you

Only the superlative “cheer-tastic” can adequately describe the infectious excitement that cheerleaders bring to a game. It’s also a perfect word for the giddy feeling of joy and inspiration I get watching someone cast aside all traces of self-consciousness and give their enthusiastic all to an audience.

That’s exactly what the actors do in “The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa,” the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s over-the-top silly, yet warmly thoughtful, tongue-in-cheek adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy. This play shoots for laughs and scores.

One of the play’s best bits of shtick involves a high-jumping, wide-grinning cheering troupe for the Windsor Backhoes, played by Tala Ashe, Miles Fletcher, Brittany Brook, Mikkei Fritz and Nikolas Horaites. The Backhoes squad takes cheering seriously and performs its routines with a polished athleticism. The cheerleaders aren’t onstage a lot during the show, but when they are, it’s delightful.

When I was in high school, despite my complete lack of coordination and debilitating shyness, I wanted desperately to be a cheerleader. Everything I adored back then about cheerleading is in “Very Merry Wives”: the gymnastics, the camaraderie, and, of course, the heart-pumping excitement. Seeing the Backhoes squad in action, it’s apparent that the actors loved cheering as much as the audience loved watching them.

Fletcher plays bighearted cheerleader Fenton, who is pursuing the young Ann Page, played by Ashe. Fletcher says preparing for the role, specifically the cheering, was not easy.

“We all had a lot of fun, but it was hard,” he says. “There were a couple days where we would dance and do cheers for a full eight hours. I’m pretty athletic, but I wasn’t used to doing flips and front handsprings.”

Choreographer Ken Roht taught the actors their routines, and Southern Oregon University cheer coach Tina Siegl helped them develop the attitude and polish to become truly “cheer-tastic.”

“Tina taught us some great techniques like ‘spiriting,’ which is making wide hand gestures, also breathing techniques and exaggerated facial expressions,” Fletcher says.

Along with the hours of physical training, Fletcher watched cheerleading videos on YouTube.

“I have such respect for the sport,” he says. “It takes a lot of athleticism.”

Fletcher adds that he was most struck by the videos of older, adult cheerleaders.

“There are people in their ’50s and ’60s who still get together and cheer, hoisting and throwing each other. It’s great.”

The actors used the gym at Lincoln Elementary School to rehearse.

“We enjoyed working in that school space,” Fletcher says. “We felt like we were in high school, working out in a hot room that would smell like sweat. We bonded talking about who we were in high school.”

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