Whenever you read about Shakespeare in education – especially among high school student groups – you can hardly escape the latest battle to keep the plays “relevant.” Here at The Shakespeare Standard, we’ve explored the many ways in which performance groups have attempted to make the playwright’s works accessible or even trendy.
This week, three different stories appeared in the news that seemed to span the spectrum of educational performance tours:
The Denver Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA) launched its pilot program of Shakespeare in the Parking Lot this week with an abridged production of Romeo and Juliet. To revitalize the presentation of Shakespeare’s works, these performances strip the plays of all pomp and Elizabethan ‘stuffiness’ by allowing actors to stage them in and around a pickup truck.
Allison Watrous, Director of Education at the DCPA, described the event:
“We are so excited to breathe unique life into the same text that these students have been studying. Reading about a sword fight can certainly be exciting. However, it’s a completely different experience to watch a fully choreographed stage combat scene, let alone one that takes place against the cab of a truck.”
The education branch of DCPA has served over six hundred schools through hundreds of events that have reached more than tens of thousands of students. A similar program has been performing in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, but Colorado’s newly created Shakespeare in the Parking Lot program will appear with a mobile Theatre Truck at Denver area high schools beginning this fall.
Elsewhere, the Ugly Shakespeare Company, which celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year with a nationwide tour, has entertained about eight hundred high school students across New Zealand. The troupe aims to increase Shakespeare’s appeal to young audiences by designing its performances with swift, abridged texts that include heavy slapstick, puns, and modern-day references.
Students come from their classroom studies of Shakespeare’s plays to see the stories unexpectedly twisted during the company’s shows. This year’s Hamlet, for example, plays on pop culture references to “Star Wars” and “Game of Thrones” to help impress and engage teens. The company performs with just three actors and also runs workshops with students. The anniversary tour will end in Auckland during the last week of May.
And finally, in a more minimalist approach, the Shakespeare in Performance troupe of Ave Maria, Florida, recently completed twelve performances of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with an emphasis on contemporary music, an intimate staging space that included audience interaction, and little scenery.
Dr. Travis Curtright of Ave Maria University serves as director. From the troupe’s website:
Shakespeare in Performance is a student acting troupe that presents the plays according to originalist practices of rhetoric and theater space. The troupe is part of a minor of studies directed by Renaissance scholar, Dr. Travis Curtright, at Ave Maria University. The capstone project of the minor is a Shakespeare production, which includes educational outreach to high school audiences.
One reviewer mentioned that, of the past five years, the Romeo and Juliet production “may have been the best ever.”
What do you think of the current ‘race to relevancy’ in Shakespeare education? Do you think troupes should capitalize on pop culture to keep students engaged? Do you think teens respond to the kinds of unusual modes of staging we’ve mentioned here this week?