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!