BWW Blog: Shakespeare as Sustenance in our Community
For those of us who spend much our days raising funds to produce Live Theatre, we are intimate with the competition for those funds from individuals, governments, foundations, and corporations.
In Memphis, that competition, unlike in my previous experiences in the northeast, is finely focused on education, organized religion, and human survival - as opposed to, for instance, a vast multitude of arts organizations. When a prospective donor mentions these requirements of basic human need to me as being in a far different class of urgency and seriousness than the arts, I take it as an invitation to make a case for live, professional, classical theatre as a necessary sustenance in our community.
Our community's necessary war on violence, teen pregnancy, the high school dropout rate, and the percentage of those living in poverty, to name just a few, is of such gravity that I frequently imagine Winston Churchill responding here today in the same way he did to a reporter in London during the German bombings when, while air raid sirens blared, he and a sold-out house of patrons attended a production of Shakespeare's Henry V, to paraphrase: If we shut down this theatre, then what is England fighting for?
It is a misfortune in our 21st century, due, likely, largely to theatres and its producers, that so many Americans see Live Theatre as either something for the wealthy or as niche entertainment that rarely seeks to rise above being solely entertaining. Theatre, particularly Shakespeare, is expensive to produce.
In large part, Tennessee Shakespeare Company was founded in Memphis precisely because of this urgent, basic human need. The thought was, and remains, that a genuine and early function of theatre was to awaken a social, personal, spiritual, educational awareness that could, in addition to raising hope, creating compassion, and articulating feelings and dreams, indeed save lives.
I was reminded of this yesterday in our first rehearsal for TSC's Romeo and Juliet. The production is part of our larger Romeo and Juliet Project in Memphis, which takes teams of actor-teaching artists into every Freshman class of five underprivileged schools three times with anti-violence workshops, getting students on their feet with Shakespeare's text. It has been the perfect play with which to launch this innovative project, which is being funded by the National Endowment for the Arts/Arts Midwest and Arts Memphis. The play must be taught in Tennessee. It is mandatory. And since the arts are not defined as one of the core curriculum necessities in our school system (we aren't the only state), the teaching of this play, as well as the subsequent lessons on Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and Macbeth, fall to English teachers to teach in English Arts class.
We study the play as ninth-graders as if it were an archaic story to be read like a fable off the page and then get tested on who killed whom. This is where I was robbed of any appreciation of play-going, speaking, hearing, feeling Shakespeare's words, or how he might be able to apply his exploration to my life.
The vast majority of Shakespeare's work is not literature to be read, in my opinion. They are plays to be played. Plays are to be physically, psychologically, aurally, socially, personally, communally played with. In my experience, most English classes are not prepared to do this. They do too many other things extremely well with language and literature. I submit that plays lie largely outside of this purview: a lost core curriculum called The Creative Arts.
My extended point is that Memphis English teachers have welcomed us into their classrooms as collaborators with them. There is a team interest in the students.
One of the first things we explore is the play's opening sonnet. The story of Romeo and Juliet is spoiled in the first 14 lines. Shakespeare wanted us to know five children would be dead by the end of the play because, as TSC's Stage Director Stephanie Shine points out, he wanted us to see clearly all the important decisions in the play being made tragically by both adults and children so that we might learn our way out of our own violence of ill-defined roots.
The Romeo and Juliet Project has proven to raise students' grades by one full letter, increase compassion, and actually excite the students for learning more. This is after they have walked and talked the play and have had their thoughts and feelings solicited and challenged. Then between learning and seeing the professional production and the post-show community forums with adults and their children that will follow, I imagine we are going to continue to hear anecdotal evidence of a child being saved...or more accurately, choosing to save him/herself.
This is what I take to prospective donors looking for ways to affect positive change in our community. This is what we take to legislators searching for new ways every five to ten years to "catch up" in the education system. And this is what we take to administrators when we urge our school systems to move the Arts closer to the center of the required learning process, along with English, Math, and the Sciences.
What's more, I do believe it: Shakespeare can save the world. We are still required to read Romeo and Juliet today at age 14 because we adults have yet to fully learn the lessons from it.