CHICAGO: It’s a common complaint among theatremakers and those who love them that not enough young people go to the theatre. With its CPS Shakespeare! program, Chicago Shakespeare Theater (CST) has addressed that problem by putting Chicago public school teens directly on its stage for a five-week rehearsal process to mount original, full-scale (if not quite full-length) Shakespeare productions.
Today CST receives the highest recognition such a program might hope for: The White House’s 2014 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, presented by the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. A delegation from CST, including a student representative, is on hand at the White House today to accept the award from First Lady Michelle Obama.
Annually, the White House presents 12 prizes (with $10,000 grants) to notable out-of-school arts and humanities programs across the country. CPS Shakespeare! is one of two theatre companies to receive the award (the New Victory Theater’s Usher Corp in New York City is the other recipient).
The CPS Shakespeare! program is the brainchild of Marilyn Halperin, CST director of education, and film and theatre director Kirsten Kelly, who together created it nine years ago. “Though Chicago Shakespeare had, for many years, been bringing tens of thousands of students in to see our work, and also touring our work to schools regionally, we had never worked with students on our stage,” said Halperin in an interview.
The program focuses particularly on Chicago’s underserved public schools, where teachers are asked to nominate two to three students for CPS Shakespeare! The focus is on students who would especially benefit from the extracurricular attention and can commit to a five-week, five-days-a-week rehearsal schedule. The program mimics a real theatremaking process in another way: CST’s production team comes in to give each play a professional sheen.
“So many of these public schools schools don’t have drama clubs,” said Halperin. “What we’re hoping is that this kind of intensive focus on a project—and them succeeding in a project—will be exactly what is needed to create a kind of gear change in the student’s life.”
CPS Shakespeare! also strives to give students a deeper connection to Shakespeare’s text beyond simply reading it on the page. “The students see all of this energy supporting their efforts, and it increases their drive to do deeper text work, and keep digging into the stories and characters, and their personal connection with these old stories,” said Kelly, who, coincidentally, was CST’s first-ever intern.
This year’s production, which ran last weekend, was a one-hour version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, teaming up 26 students and eight teachers from 10 public schools. In directing the group, Kelly took an ensemble devising approach, encouraging her actors to make creative choices in response to the text. For example, because a number of students in the production (and the parents coming to see them) are Spanish speakers, the show included some some bilingual moments.
“We realized that the family and friends who were coming to see this…have never been to theatre before,” said Kelly. “We worked with the kids and the teachers on how can we invite everybody in.” In this Midsummer, a number of monologues were partly in Spanish, and Bottom sang a song in Spanish—for sound dramaturgical reasons, of course.
“Bottom [played by Michael Watkins] at that point is not a Spanish speaker, but Tatiana [played by Jennifer Gonzalez], who wakes up and falls in love with him, is. So she teaches him the song and they sing it together, which is really beautiful,” Kelly said.
It’s not only the students who have been inspired by CPS Shakespeare! Kelly features a CPS Shakespeare teen in her newest documentary about homelessness among the young, The Homestretch.
“The inspiration was actually meeting a young man through CPS who was a senior in high school and experiencing some pretty severe issues with homelessness,” recalled Kelly, whose film is currently on the film festival circuit, with a broadcast on PBS’s Independent Lens series scheduled for April 13, 2015. “I learned about how pervasive this problem was, and when my film partner Anne de Mare and I were looking for a subject for our next documentary, we realized that nobody was talking about this. At that point, there were over 15,000 kids registered as homeless in the Chicago public schools.”
For both Kelly and Halperin, the point of CPS Shakespeare! is not necessarily to make frequent theatregoers or artists out of its participates but to help give teenagers “falling between the cracks,” as they put it, a chance to express themselves and find their voice. CPS Shakespeare! graduates, they report, have gone on to be reporters, army recruits—and, in one particular case, an activist. Roque, the homeless teen featured in Homestretch who was also a CPS Shakespeare! student, is now an activist for homeless youth. He has given a number of speeches nationally, including in Washington, D.C.
Kelly recalled that in his speech at PBS’s 2014 annual meeting, in front of 1,000 people, he closed with the “Alas, poor Yorick” monologue from Hamlet. “I didn’t know he was going to do that! But it was so moving. This beautiful actor just stepped up onstage.”