A Chicago-based summer camp called The Viola Project seeks to empower young girls and provide them with tools for self-expression through an exploration of Shakespeare. This summer, the Oak Park Festival Theatre is collaborating with the project to create a satellite camp location. On August 7, an all-female cast of girls will perform scenes from The Two Gentlemen of Verona before the Festival’s full production begins in Austin Gardens. The Festival Theatre and The Viola Project have collaborated for a decade on workshops in the past.
The camp was named for Shakespeare’s heroine from Twelfth Night, a strong female figure who uses language to advocate for what she wants rather than “sit meekly in the background.” According to Skyler Schrempp who spoke with the Chicago Tribune, a teacher at Roe Elementary School in Chicago involved with the project, girls become more quiet and shy when they reach about the age of ten and don’t talk about their opinions. The project’s website mentions that “young women begin the process of actively removing their voices from public discourse” during their adolescence:
In school, girls participate less, speak less, stand up for their ideas less and are faced with intense pressure to conform to societal pressures including expectations of ideal body image, negative perceptions of female leadership as well as the realities of minimal representation in mainstream narrative, income inequality and access to healthcare. It is the goal of The Viola Project to increase agency in voice in order to equip girls with the tools to advocate for their individual needs.
During the all-girls Shakespeare camp, students learn to work with dialogue that highlights characters who speak not only about what they think or what they want but also about why they are motivated to feel and act in such ways. Teachers who work with the camp participants focus on the tools of language that can help women accomplish their goals. Teachers also emphasize that male actors would have played the female roles, whereas today girls can play whichever roles they wish – an important, confidence boosting element of rehearsals. Instructors use an interdisciplinary approach that includes attending live performances, creating visual art, interviewing professional women, learning musical instruments, learning self defense, and studying stage craft.
The Viola Project hopes to expand to more satellite programs going forward. The girls will perform on the evening of August 7 while The Two Gentlemen of Verona for Oak Park Festival Theatre runs until August 22.