Montana Shakespeare in the Schools, or How to Keep 1,000 Teens from Playing with their Phones

MT Shakespeare in the Schools

One of the fun parts of my job as Director of Arts Education is conducting site visits to programs that receive funding in our Artists in Schools and Communities grant category. It made for an early morning yesterday, arriving a little before 8:30 a. m. at Helena Middle School to see a performance of Montana Shakespeare in the Schools Two Gentlemen of Verona.  Actors are not known to be early risers, so I admire the ones who can get themselves up at the crack of dawn, get to the performance site, help set up the stage, do their physical and vocal warmup and have the energy to perform for an audience of young people, sometimes two to three times per day. Today they would perform for over 1,000 Helena High School students, and conduct workshops with some of the students afterwards.  As I watched the students stream into the auditorium, I worried about the size of the audience.  Some had lattes in their hands, many were playing with their smart phones or clowning with their friends.  If this play didn’t hold their attention, this could be a fiasco, I thought.

I quickly realized as the production got underway that there was little need to worry. The performers grabbed the attention of the audience immediately with high-energy performances.  The director clearly conceived the production with a high school audience in mind:  clear storytelling, lots of action to help students access the language, quick transitions, and a theme high school students can relate to–is it possible to forgive a person you love who has betrayed you?  In Shakespeare’s play, Julia winds up marrying Proteus despite the fact that he dumps her for a woman who doesn’t even love him.  In this production, the director gives the ending a wonderfully modern twist, ending not with a doormat Julia instantly forgiving the unfaithful Proteus, but instead choosing to leave the audience wondering whether or not Julia is going to forgive Proteus for his transgressions.   The audience was with this production from beginning to end, and engaged in a delightful post-show question and answer session with the actors.

The actors then headed to Helena High School to lead workshops on character development, Shakespeare’s language, and stage combat with groups of students.  It was a delight to watch awkward, self-aware teenagers warm up to the actors and engage in the warm-ups, games and theater activities that were out of the comfort zone of most of them.

Some people believe that live theater is not very relevant to modern teenagers, and that they would rather engage with a screen than with live performers on stage.  After witnessing 1,000 teenagers leaving their phones in their pockets to be pulled into Shakespeare’s world of love and betrayal for 75 minutes, I still like to believe that there is no technological replacement for the power of a live performance.  I’m also encouraged to know that the administration of Helena High School (my alma matter) also believes the same, since they let nearly their entire student body leave the building to walk to the middle school auditorium to see live Shakespeare.

Montana Shakespeare in the Parks’ Shakespeare in the Schools program tours through December for middle and high schools, and then conducts a touring program for elementary schools in the spring called Montana Shakes!  Both tours are available for booking to all Montana schools, contact Montana Shakespeare in the Parks for more information.   

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