Fostering an Appreciation for the Bard While Impacting Students

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Julius Caesar at the Tavern's Summer Shakespeare Intensive for Teens

Students in the June 2011 session of the Summer Shakespeare Intensive for Teens perform Julius Caesar. Photo by Alison Gurevich

For many in Atlanta, a person’s first contact with The New American Shakespeare Tavern, or any professional theater, comes via a field trip to one of their student matinees. As the most visible of their education programs, it is the one most known. Yet, their education department offers much more.

What stands out the most is not the breadth of the program, but the impact it is having on metro-Atlanta youth. Not only does it foster an appreciation for Shakespeare’s craft and language, but it also develops a sense of community and promotes a greater sense of self-worth for all who encounter it.

The students not only create their productions, but they also grow as people. According to Laura Cole, Director of Education and Training at Shakespeare Tavern, “Creating art is what changes us.” For students participating in any of these programs, they exit them changed. “The first year [in the Summer Shakespeare Intensive for Teens]I was nervous and shy. SIT really did help me,” states sixteen-year-old student Embree Battles.

“When kids learn that theater does give them something of value, it really does change lives,” Cole states. She goes on to mention that one of the greatest rewards of the programs is watching young adults grow and learn from the mistakes of the characters they play.

Andrew Houchins, an Education Artist at Shakespeare Tavern, adds that his greatest reward is “watching them interact with the audience after each performance and hearing them say how much fun it is.” He goes on to say, “Then, you overhear when somebody who knows them says, ‘I never knew you could do that!’” For him knowing that proof of growth, of someone coming out of their shell is gratifying.

Not only are new theater-goers, new actors, and new supporters being molded, but young people are learning to be better adults. This impact begins with elementary students during the summer.

Shakespeare Super Heroes Summer Camp Builds a Strong Foundation

While many may think that elementary-age students are too young to tackle Shakespeare, the Shakespeare Super Heroes Camp defies that logic. There are three two-week sessions held each summer that see a variety of students participate and become excited about Shakespeare. When the camp is completed, the students perform in front of family and friends on the Shakespeare Tavern stage.

Held at Renfroe Middle School in Decatur and at the Murray Arts Center of Mt. Paran Christian School in Kennesaw, this program for third through eighth graders reaches students of all backgrounds and ability levels. During their sessions, they study and perform one of Shakespeare’s plays. The roles have been truncated and redistributed, but the kid-friendliness of the script stops there. Students study and perform Shakespeare’s language.

When thinking of the impact of the program, Cole mentions watching a little girl play the character of Puck from A Midsummer’s Night Dream with the enthusiasm and passion of adult. What is amazing about the situation that she describes is the fact that this girl was shy and didn’t talk much within the group.

“The depth, knowledge and empathy each brings, the thoughtfulness and command of the language is astonishing,” Cole says. The added benefit for the future though is that the students lose their fear of Shakespeare when they study the plays in upper grades. “Kids dive into ninth grade Shakespeare with much less intimidation,” she explains.

Making the Classroom Come Alive

During the school year, Shakespeare Tavern works with a variety of high schools in the area through Residencies, where they offer an intense workshop for eight weeks in an after school program. In addition, In-class Playshops provide an avenue to educate students.

The beauty of Shakespeare’s language can’t be appreciated as well if it is just read on the printed page without the emotion and the eloquent rhythms of the spoken language. However, due to time constraints and other curriculum-related issues, most students read a Shakespearean play alone or maybe a little bit in class. Although most English teachers would agree that Shakespeare was meant to be spoken and heard, in most classes the teacher accomplishes this task by listening to or watching a recorded version.

As You Like at the Tavern's Summer Intensive for Teens

The cast performs As You Like It during one of the 2010 sessions of the Summer Shakespeare Intensive for Teens program. Photo by Alison Gurevich

The staff of the education department at the Shakespeare Tavern shares the philosophy that the language needs to be spoken and heard. When they enter the classroom through the In-class Playshops, their goal is to make Shakespeare come alive for the students. The artists don’t tell the answers to them; instead, they work like directors and illicit responses, which is much different from the question and answer format of a standard lecture.

“Kids perform and speak the language. They own the concept and create rather than review it,” mentions Cole. “We encourage an active exploration of the language and facilitate how they can show what it means. They own it and can say what the character is thinking.”

Houchins agrees with Cole, stating, “In terms of the broadest scope, it is great for high school students to be able to experience Shakespeare. Very little of it is read in class itself.” He goes on to mention that through this program “they get to hear the poetry, hear the rhythm and hear the words.”

Residencies Deepen the Experience

While the classroom visits are wonderful accomplishments, the Residencies enrich students even more. Residencies provide eight weeks of immersive study for students after school. Schools that host this program, such as Atlanta’s Therrell High School, Carver School of Technology, and the Atlanta Girls’ School, find it to be successful.

To encourage participation, Residencies enter the school as a whole-school activity. “We don’t go in through the drama department,” states Cole. With this approach, a broader spectrum of the school’s population from athletes to drama students become attracted to what is going on. All students are welcome to audition for the program, but the auditions are merely a formality and method of introduction.

Plus, the program has an open door policy. Even if someone joins five weeks into the program, there will be a role for him/her. As they start the program, students from all social groups participate, and many times the number grows as students observe and talk about the program. At the end of eight weeks, the group performs the play they rehearsed.

By performing the text these students are not only learning and building public speaking skills, but they are also growing self-confidence. “They will walk away with a greater sense of self-assurance and self-confidence,” comments Houchins.

The Summer Shakespeare Intensive for Teens Inspires

For some teens, the chance to perform on a professional stage is enticing and a chance of a lifetime. The Summer Shakespeare Intensive for Teens, held in two four-week sessions, ends with a final performance on the Shakespeare Tavern stage. While performing on a professional stage is appealing for many of the students, what brings students back each year is the camaraderie in addition to the specific training they receive.

Students get acting lessons and stage combat lessons among others, but the main focus is on producing a Shakespearean play. This year, July’s session is working on Romeo and Juliet. During rehearsals they learn their characters, and they learn to work together as a team, which allows for a tight bonding experience.

Fifteen-year-old student Jake West, who is back for a second year, explains, “It is a great experience. It means a lot to be back here. Instead of just directing, they really walk you through the steps – how to go about creating a character.” Even though they love learning about the craft and about Shakespeare, the cohesiveness of the group and the bonds in the group stand out.

Julius Caesar at the Tavern's Shakespeare Intensive for Teens

Students perform Julius Caesar to close June 2011's Summer Shakespeare Intensive for Teens. Photo by Alison Gurevich

Seventeen-year-old student Lili Safon comments, “The best part is the community. There’s a very warm environment to come into and be a part of.” Similarly, Jake West says, “This has helped me get in touch with myself, with my character [that he is playing]and build relationships.”

Embree Battles sums it up best when she says, “It is an inspiring experience – the connections and the things you learn. It is fun and builds things we need in life.” Lili Safon agrees, commenting, “Not only do we learn about Shakespeare, acting and stage combat, but we also learn a lot about ourselves. It a good experience and unique.”

For awkward, shy teens or even those bursting with confidence, a sense of belonging makes more difference than any book, teacher or program. The New American Shakespeare Tavern has an immeasurable impact in our city not just as a professional theater, but also as a mentor and safe harbor for teens in the metro area to embrace who they are and learn to become better citizens.

By: Kenny Norton