William Shakespeare is a permanent presence at Canal Winchester High School.

For 29 years, students have performed one of Shakespeare's plays as part of the school's annual madrigal dinner, which takes its name from a type of secular vocal music popular during the Renaissance.

This year about 120 students are involved in the Bard's most famous comedy, "A Midsummer Night's Dream," that will be presented at the high school, 300 Washington St., Feb. 17-18.

Director Todd Phillips, who came up with the idea all those years ago, said the dinner-theater presentation started as a way to fill up "dead space" on the school calendar.

"There really wasn't anything going on in our performing arts department at that time," Phillips said. "I certainly had no thoughts that the annual dinner would have been going on nearly three decades."

Over the years, Phillips said, about a dozen different Shakespeare plays have been presented on a rotating basis. While most performances have gone off without a hitch, one show in 2003 had to be cancelled because a blizzard blew in that weekend.

"We've been very lucky to always have at least pretty reasonable weather," Philips said.

"Some of the best memories come from seeing students interact with our audiences," he said. "It's so much fun watching our performers gain enough confidence to ad lib lines in character and to engage the audience in the scene."

Once students begin working on the script, they begin to realize they "know people just like these characters in the play," he said.

"That helps them understand not just human behavior, but how one of the greatest playwrights was able to see our true nature," Phillips said.

Canal Winchester resident Brian Packer was in the cast for Phillips' first madrigal dinner when he was a senior at CWHS. This year, Packer will watch his freshman daughter, Claire, perform.

"It makes me feel old, but I am very proud of her that she gets to kind of go through the same thing that I went through with the same director -- it is pretty amazing and interesting," Packer said.

While he doesn't remember which of Shakespeare's plays he was in, Packer does recall singing in the choir and playing a horn to announce each guest's arrival.

"It gave me a good experience mixing music with drama," he said. "I went to college after that and pursued some music and singing."

Claire, who will dance before the performance and sing in this year's show, said it is really "cool" to follow in her father's footsteps as a madrigal-dinner performer.

She said she wanted to be a part of the production because it sounded interesting and she knew others in the cast.

"I am gaining experience working with other singers and dancers and I am having fun while learning about different styles of music," Claire said.

Nancy Holloway, who has been going to the madrigal dinners since she moved to Canal Winchester in 2012, said she enjoys watching the soloists, the ensembles, the Renaissance musicians, the English country dancers and the Shakespeare play cast.

"I love them," Holloway said. "It's a great time and it is amazing to me that they can put on such a professional production with such a large group of kids because there are over 100 students in each performance and a lot of moving parts."

Holloway said the dinner theater also creates a great social atmosphere.

"It is such a great community event for very little money for a ticket," Holloway said. "It's no wonder the shows are packed each day."

Tickets for the 7 p.m. dinner show on Saturday, Feb. 17, which includes a five-course meal, cost $15 per person.

The 2 p.m. show on Sunday, Feb. 18, which includes a four-course luncheon, costs $10 per person.

All seats are reserved. Tickets can be ordered by emailing tphillips@cwls.us or calling 614-836-1448.

"We pride ourselves on creating a unique experience for both the audience and the students," Phillips said. "It's also a thrill to see them (students) learn how to connect with the stories that are more than 400 years old."

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