Shakespeare is coming your way

Othello unleashed his jealous fury in Sweet Briar, Va. Julius Caesar was assassinated all over New England. And Romeo wooed fair Juliet in hardscrabble Waycross, Ga., on the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp for a multiracial audience of kids who had never seen a play before.

It's all part of the National Endowment for the Arts' "Shakespeare in American Communities" project, the largest tour of the Bard's works in American history, geared toward bringing first-class productions to small and mid-size communities across the country.

By the time Phase II of the project - "Shakespeare for a New Generation" - winds down next month, the NEA programs will have reached 550 communities throughout all 50 states, enabling students from 870 schools to see a live, professional production of Shakespeare.

In addition, an unprecedented partnership with the Department of Defense brought the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's production of "Macbeth" to 13 US military bases, from Georgia to Alaska.

For many in the audiences, these performances represent the first live theatrical experience of their lives. But if NEA chairman Dana Gioia has his way, it will be only the beginning of a love affair with the arts.

"Most teenagers have never seen a professional play, attended a symphonic concert, seen an opera or a dance production, and have rarely visited a museum," Mr. Gioia asserts. "We're trying to make an experience with great art available to kids across the United States no matter where they live or what their family income is."

It is a mammoth undertaking and the most ambitious in NEA history. Administered in cooperation with Arts Midwest, a nonprofit arts organization based in Minneapolis, the project gives grants to companies around the country to take Shakespeare productions into communities that otherwise wouldn't be able to afford such an enterprise. It offers children artistic experiences that are both emotionally stirring and intellectually stimulating.

"Being involved in this initiative has given students a broader perspective of the world and their part in it," says Susan Baldwin, a teacher in Alaska's remote Hoonah City, where Shakespeare's plays were performed by native actors. It was an experience, says Ms. Baldwin, that allowed her students "to see their future differently than before."

Better seen than read

Shakespeare's plays are required reading for secondary-school students in all 50 states, but even the most gifted teachers admit that the material can be difficult. "Take a child who's never seen live spoken drama and give him or her a 400-year-old text written in verse and that is an extremely difficult starting point for learning," notes Gioia.

Shakespeare wrote his works for the stage and not for the textbook, point out those who know the Bard best.

"When [students] attend a performance, the actors do the work of making emotional transitions and physicalizing the text, and it suddenly becomes crystal clear," says Kevin Coleman, director of education for Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass. "They are shocked at how much they love it, shocked at how accessible it is, how the characters and language and issues come alive. They are able to go back and read the play with more active imagination, less intimidated and finding more things in the text than before. It makes Shakespeare a really enjoyable experience."

He recalls one performance of "Julius Caesar" during which the students, encouraged by the actors, became part of the play's angry mob. They began shouting, "We will be revenged" with such enthusiasm that security guards rushed into the auditorium, fearing a riot.

"We engage the students in participating, and they really respond. They stop being intimidated. They have this eureka moment, 'This is really fun.' "

Opportunities to learn more

In some instances, the project also includes discussions and educational programs. Shakespeare & Company not only will perform "Julius Caesar," but it will also offer two interactive workshops.

A program called "Wild and Whirling Words" introduces students to Shakespeare - the man, the world in which he lived, and the remarkable richness of his language. In "Workshops in Performance," students have an opportunity to become the actors as they learn about the Bard's plays.

Early next month the NEA is expected to announce the beginning of Phase III of the project, during which 35 more companies will join together in an effort to reach as many communities as possible.

According to Gioia, there is no end in sight. "Both our National Council and our congressional subcommittee have asked us to make this a permanent program, and I am happy to oblige."

The works of the Bard have much to offer today's students, says Gioia. "Shakespeare is magnificent and rude, eloquent and silly, vulgar and exalted. Just like life."

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