BWW Blog: Helping Memphis Students Embrace Shakespeare
I founded Tennessee Shakespeare Company in my hometown of Memphis in 2008 following many years of working as a stage actor, director, artist-manager, primarily in New England. I was personally and professionally compelled to found TSC, and I spent half a year researching and creating a strategic seven-year plan. This gave birth to the Mid-South's only professional, classical theatre. But we quickly outpaced our seven years. We also encountered all manner of unforeseen obstacles, surprises, and even set-backs, which, the further I get from them, the more intriguing they become (as opposed to just harrowing).
Chief among the surprises, and what I would like to record as the subject of my first post here, is the effect of the works of William Shakespeare on Memphis area children and the effect of these children on TSC.
TSC engages students in more than 100 schools each year now, mostly in Memphis. We now travel and perform in most of the southern states. We have taught and performed for more than 120,000 children. But there was a time when I couldn't get in the door to most of the schools - even for free.
I don't consider myself a traditional theatre person. I'm a creative businessperson who discovered that it was theatre, specifically Shakespeare, that could most movingly put me in touch with my humanity. And that of others. For me - once a boy whose first theatre experience wasn't as an audience member but as an actor, who deplored reading Shakespeare, who was fearful of extroverts and of speaking in public - I found my constant touchstone in life with embracing Shakespeare live on stage.
This became part of my introduction of who I was, and am. I said that I had come to our schools here, to prospective investors, to old friends, not as a someone interested in burnishing Shakespeare's reputation, or mine, but as a fellow traveler, a little further along, interested in using Shakespeare's works as a platform for teen-aged epiphany. We just needed us adults out of the way a little more - to cease speaking for the children or protecting them from their own native intelligence, impulse, and articulation.
That was 2006, 2007, part of 2008.
Having now spent time with thousands of our students (and TSC teaching artists have spent time with tens of thousands), I can tell you their gleaning with Shakespeare remains the greatest pleasure for me - particularly when they surprise themselves or their teachers -- or me, as they did this week when I had the good fortune to speak with Janessa Jordan's class at Soulsville Charter School. Their level of inquiry into Hamlet's actions was vibrantly Elizabethan.
What remains the most astounding surprise to me as a business person is the fact that it has been these children who have represented over 50% of TSC's new and developing audiences in the past four years. I'm not including the number of children at our shows to arrive at that percentage. I'm counting the number of paying adults who came to TSC shows for the first time because their child told them to attend, told them to take their children with them, and wanted their parents to experience what they did during the school day.
Can you imagine?
Tennessee Shakespeare Company is the community's theatre, it is for everyone - certainly as Shakespeare would have it. I dare not say "accessible," as that over-used word smacks of a dumbing down of the text and a treacherous misread of our own innate ability to feel, think, comprehend, and create. Instead, we all must rise to the challenge, far above theatre merely being entertainment, of a potential awakening when we engage with Shakespeare on stage.
Fortunately, you and I have our children to show us the way.