Shakes DIY: Schedule stuff

So now that I’ve give you a few pep talks and told you how to make Shakespeare cool, let’s talk nitty-gritty.

What does a day at Shakes look like?

We run Shakes in the summer, four or five days per week for six or seven weeks,  so we have a ridiculous amount of time with our kids. Here’s what an average day looks like:

9:30 AM- Optional work-out. We work core mostly- abs, arms, some stretching… a great way to get in shape/stay in shape for the summer.

10:00 AM SHARP- We open with prayer. Urban Impact is a faith-based holistic ministry and we believe that the body, mind, AND soul are important! If you’re late for prayer, you’re considered late (remind me to do a post on how we get kids there on time!)

10:10 AM- Acting Class starts. Each year’s acting classes are tailored to the students we have and the play we’re performing. We’ve done everything from zip-zap-zop and volume exercises to Viewpoints and Laban.

10:55 AM- Break. ‘Cause they gotta check their phones sometime!

11:05 AM- English Class. Our incredible English teacher tailors each year’s focus to the group and the play. We learn everything from deciphering the text to the Great Chain of Being!

11:50 AM- Break. Again with the phones…

12:00 PM- Bible Study. The soul is important! We split guys and girls during most of the week so they can concentrate better and speak more freely. We come together once a week to do a group study.

12:30 PM- Lunch. We are blessed to be able to feed our kids alongside the church’s summer day camps! Our food is provided through SNAP.

1:00 PM- Rehearsal. We rehearse in a space that is separate from our performance space. Like a professional theatre company, we tape the outline of the already-designed set onto the carpet of our rehearsal room. The kids who aren’t in rehearsal are memorizing their lines or running scenes in rehearsal rooms.

3:50 PM- Prayer again. We meet together to say goodbye.

4:00 PM- Students are dismissed.

And that’s when the real work for the adults begins- tech-ing an entire show.

Let me know if you have any questions and good luck with your own schedule!

Another verse

Remember this post? Where my Shakes student wrote a verse in rap about going back to school after quitting? Well, they won’t let her back in because there’s no room in the budget for fifth-year students. This is a girl who memorizes hundreds of lines of Shakespeare with ease. Who read the whole series of Anne of Green Gables in 6th grade. Who quit school in part because the dropout factory she attended wasn’t challenging enough for her. Anyway, she wrote another verse. Hope it inspires you in some way.

I tried to go to school, I’m knockin on their door. But their turnin me away, no love for me in school no more. So I’m stuck in square one, lookin at square two, wishing my gradma was here to tell me what to do. I’m prayin up to heaven, wishin on my God, hoping that he shows me the difference of right and wrong. But I feel like I’m alone, a success in disguise, but I know I’m a failure in everybody’s eyes.

Shakes DIY: Making Shakespeare Cool

Why don’t kids like Shakespeare?
Probably because their main exposure to it is sitting in class, cold-reading it in front of their friends and stumbling over every other word. (“Cold-reading” is a theatre term that means, “to read aloud for the first time.” Professional actors are cowed by cold-reading Shakespeare.) They don’t know what it means, they just know that everyone’s giggling because they’re Lady Macbeth and have to say “damn.” They see pictures on the cover of these books of people who look nothing like them, doing things they’ve never done.

Ah yes- I wear this all the time.

If I had a nickel for every time I see this…

So this play is about a girl WITH GIANT SHOULDERS and a mask…?

So how do we, at Urban Impact Shakes, make Shakespeare relevant, approachable, and, dare I say it, fun?

How about you learn from our mistakes!

Our first year of Shakes, we did Romeo and Juliet, set in the 1930’s. It was tremendously successful. Nobody even thought Shakespeare could be performed without pumpkin pants and pointy hats! They were awed.

pointy hats   pumpkin pants

“Great!” we thought. “Let’s take our next concept out of history!” So the second year, we did The Tempest set in Post-WWII Siberia. Although the staging, costumes, and especially acting was better, it was… less successful. Now that the students knew we could do Shakespeare without pumpkin pants, they were not awed by our new concept. Despite the 10-foot-tall sprite on stilts and glow wire magic guns.


After The Tempest, we had a decline in enrollment, and only two new students. Uh-oh! Something must have gone wrong. Little did they know, Julius Caesar would be when we got it right. Why? We based our concept on something flashy, exciting, and way too hot to be cool. We invented something we called, “Rome-punk,” like steam punk but with Roman-era influences. Our set was deconstructed and in the round (so the audience surrounded us on all sides), our fights were more dances than fights, we involved the students (who, by now, were capable actors) in the creation of our movement. The costumes were based on runways in Milan. In short, we hit the jackpot.

Julius Caesar poster 3 AWC

We decided to take the theories behind what made Caesar so successful and implement them into Much Ado About Nothing, and here’s what we came up with:

1) Choose a concept that is interesting and current. For Much Ado, we did it in a neo-folk style. (like Mumford and Sons)

2) Involve your students in the creation of the show and ask them to contribute their unique gifts. We had a brilliant student musician in our group, so we asked her (and helped her) to write and perform music, which we taught to our students, who performed it live during the show. We spent hours workshopping the songs to make them work.

3) No age makeup. We have a rule in our shows now that the oldest person on stage is the oldest person in that world. Parent/child relationships are played out and understood, but age is suggested in costuming, mannerisms, and interaction, not black lines and grey hair.

4) Act alongside your students, or get semi-professionals to join in. The students will rise to their level. They’ll see the way Shakespeare is supposed to be portrayed. We had two post-grads and one college student in Caesar (told you enrollment was down!) and one post-grad in Much Ado.

5) Get professional posters. Really helpful if you can afford it. Your photo shoot will be one of your first activities together and it sets the tone for all your rehearsals as well as casts a vision so the kids can see what the final show will be like.

6) Let your kids be who they are. Our kids are urban kids. We don’t try to get them to put on British accents. Yes, they’re expected to speak clearly. No, they’re not expected to be suburban kids. When our Prince left his earrings in, we told him to keep them in. Every night.

Last year's production of Much Ado


What concept is rolling around in your mind? What are your kids good at? Will pumpkin pants ever make a comeback? We can only hope.


This. So much this.

One of my Shakes students quit school last year and decided to go back this year. Today she posted this:

I was meant for school but adapted to the streets.
Didn’t even have a home, stayed in a few traps, tried to make ends meet.
Now I feel like a jackass, a high school drop out.
But I’m going back to school to prove I’m more than what people talk about.

So proud of this girl!

Shakes DIY: You can do it!

Question: When are you ready to start your own student Shakespeare program?

Answer: RIGHT NOW.

When we started, we were a motley crew: A professional actor, an aspiring director, and an English Education major. That’s it. Three semi-adults producing a fully-realized Shakespeare show with middle schoolers. The idea: Romeo and Juliet, set in the 1930’s, with the Capulets as stars of the silver screen and the Montagues as railroad-riding dustbowlers.

You know one of the reasons we originally did Shakespeare? There were no royalties. We had next to no budget for this program. The average age of the cast was fourteen. We had no stock of costumes or props- we had to make or buy every little thing. Our lights were very old TV lights, and each had its own giant dimmer- no lighting board. Our sound system was borrowed and there weren’t enough mics. I was in charge of costumes and, to give you an idea of my sewing skills, it took me fourteen hours to make a white apron. Unlined. Our props master was the English major and she’d never made props in her life.

So how did we do it?

We had five things that made our first year successful:

1) VISION: Our aspiring director cast a vision and we told everybody that’s what we were striving for. We wanted to do professional-quality Shakespeare with teenagers. Nothing less.


2) DRIVE: Literally and figuratively! We drove half the cast members to and from rehearsal every day. Our English teacher (the college student) picked up the girl who played Juliet every day to memorize lines before rehearsal. We drove our personal cars for hours on tour. And figuratively? We got pocket knives on ebay for a dollar each. We talked yardsalers out of their crates and barrels. We built a frame for the set in our two-bedroom, second-story apartment. Our director blocked every single move, using colored pencils and X’s and O’s like football plays. If our show was going to fail, it wasn’t going to be because we didn’t give it our all. And our show succeeded.

3) STANDARDS: Our director never let us forget our standards. Each Capulet was outfitted only in black, white, and silver. Only. Each Montague was outfitted in brown, blue, green, and off-white. Only. Our Romeo was thirteen years old and was expected to memorize over 500 lines of Shakespeare. He did. Our students were expected to handle firearms (a starter pistol), fight choreography, and special effects blood like professionals. They did. They were expected to be off-book weeks before the show. They were. They were expected to wear their costumes without complaint. They did. We didn’t give them any excuses because they were young. We just expected them to rise to the occasion. And they did.

4) SUPPORT: Remember our TV lights? Donated. The church space where we performed? Donated. Our tour performances happened only because the places we called said yes and offered to house us. Urban Impact Foundation backed us totally, giving all that they could in the way of time, money, connections, and personnel. A lady made us a dress. A volunteer went on tour with us to usher our audience and work the giant dimmer packs for our TV lights. Every day, lunches were provided by the food bank. And hundreds of people came to see our show.

5) MIRACLES: We couldn’t have done it without the miracles that kept us keeping on. There were a lot. We worked hard, but none of this would have been possible without God. Example: Three weeks before the show went up, we still didn’t have a way to build one of the set pieces our director had designed. At this point, we either had to cut the piece or attempt to build it. That day, a woman walks into the Urban Impact offices. “I don’t know if you can use me,” she said, “but I’d like to volunteer for you. I’m a professional set designer.” That weekend, we were in her garage, building the set.


You will never be completely ready. You will never have everything you need. At some point, you just need to jump in feet first and say, “Now is the time.” Keep following my Shakes DIY series- I’ll tell you how we costume a show in one week, how we do our sound design, what kind of personnel you need to do a professional-quality show, how to make Shakespeare cool, why our students keep coming back, how to foster a sense of community, what our daily schedule looks like, etc, etc.

If you have any specific issues you want addressed, feel free to contact me!

Shakes DIY: Purpose quest

So! I told you in my last post that I would tell you all about how my husband and I do our Shakes program. That is, a program in which we do professional-quality Shakespearean plays with kids from the inner city. It’s been talked about in English conferences across the country for the past two years and thousands of people have seen our performances.

Cast of Julius Caesar

First step to Shakes: We define our goal.

Shakes is, first and foremost, a mentorship and discipleship program in which we choose 10 or 12 students who we think have potential, and conscientiously invest in them. Everything goes back to that. We use Shakespeare to do it, but the main goal is to grow the students individually as leaders.

All of our decisions are based off of our main goal.

Example: We don’t hold auditions. Kids from our Urban Impact Performing Arts Academy are allowed to apply, and we hand-choose from the applicants. Some we choose because we see leaders in the making. Some we choose because we’d rather have them with us than in the streets for the summer. Some we choose because we want to surround them with a loving atmosphere. Some we choose because they just love the program so much they beg to be part of it. But we choose all of them, no audition required.

So if we are ever in a quandary about, say, whether a student should be in the cast when she’s making poor life choices, we go back to our main goal: How can we best help her and her fellow students to grow as a leader? We ended up asking her to do crew instead of being on stage.

So what is the goal of your program?

Do you want to teach literacy? Do you want to give kids stage experience? Do you want to invest in a kid’s life?

Pick a goal and go for it! The rest of your program decisions will be informed by this goal.

I’m getting published!!!

If you’ve been wondering why I’ve been so silent, it’s not only because I’m busy with the baby, the rough draft, the new Twitter account (@LLAWrites), and a trip across the country, it’s because…

I’m getting published and I couldn’t keep my mouth selectively shut, so I just kept it entirely shut!

Official announcement:
“Laura Lee Anderson’s YELLOW BIKE, in which a small-town high school waitress with a folk music obsession falls for a New York City rich kid… who’s deaf, to Meredith Rich at Bloomsbury Spark, for publication in 2015, by Uwe Stender at TriadaUS Literary Agency (world).”

It’s been a long process! Much longer than anticipated, but from what I hear that’s just the way things go. My intrepid, tireless, faithful agent, Uwe Stender, has been submitting for a long time as email after email of, “I was so close with this one,” or “I just signed a book that’s similar,” “we don’t feel we can break it out from the very crowded market that is YA right now,” “the premise just wasn’t big enough to get the team on board,”  “a bit too commercial,”  “as much as I enjoyed aspects of the manuscript, I’m afraid I just didn’t love it quite enough to move forward,” “I thought it felt a little quiet,” (all actual quotes from real editors) came in. I sent him an email once saying, “I could take rejections like this all day!” and I really meant it. What an honor to have all of these people from famous publishing companies take the time to read my book and say such nice things about it.

Here are some more snippets of the rejection letters: “…it is so very much in the wheel-house of ELEANOR AND PARK, THE TRAGEDY PAPER,”  “Robin and Carter are such an enticing pair,” “…both characters are handled very well as their alternating POVs invite the reader into their flirty back and forth,” “I think it’s truly a wonderful story,” “…a fresh twist on traditional young adult romance,” “It’s clear that Laura has strength in her prose,” and “…feels timeless and almost rose-tinted.”

And that’s just a random handful from a lot of great emails. Really- everyone was so kind! I’ve been an actor for years and let me tell you, this is one place where writing definitely has the upper hand. In acting, if you audition for a part and don’t get it, you often find out simply because rehearsals start and you were never called.

Again and again each editor echoed some form of the phrase, “I’m sure it won’t be long before someone else is snatching this one up!” but months passed and still no bite.

Finally, we struck gold with Meredith Rich at Bloomsbury’s new digital first imprint, Spark, and I couldn’t be happier! After about a month of contract negotiations, starring Uwe Stender (so, so grateful for his experience, tenacity, flexibility, and collaboration), I signed on the dotted line (which actually isn’t dotted, fyi) and mailed four copies of the contract to New York City in the middle of a 32-hour roadtrip.

I am thrilled that Bloomsbury Spark will be publishing YELLOW BIKE as an ebook sometime in 2015! I’ll be part of a fine community of writers with whom to network, have the full support of Bloomsbury’s international reach, and benefit from having the smart and insightful Meredith Rich at my side, helping YELLOW BIKE to be the best version of itself.

Needless to say, some changes will be made to this blog to make it more website-y and shouting things from the rooftops, among other things.

Want more news?
My husband and I are not doing our most excellent Shakes program (a program in which we do Shakespeare with inner-city kids) this summer. We needed a break. But we plan to be back next summer! In the meantime, I’m going to write some blogs on how we do full-length, professional-quality Shakespeare plays in the original language with a bunch of urban kids! So tell your friends, your teachers, your librarians, and your youth program organizers- maybe some of what we do can work for you.

Last year's production of Much Ado

Last year’s production of Much Ado


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