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Teaching artist Michelle Jackson working with students at J.G. Whittier Education Campus.
Above the door to the classroom reads an inspirational poster: “Every Day Counts.” Through that door come the red sweatshirted teaching artists. They enter with an energy that transforms the room. The students shift slightly, not quite sure about what they are going to see. Today they are getting a special District Shakespeare workshop. Today they will experience classic theatre—many for the first time.
District Shakespeare is the newest initiative coming out of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Education Department. Born out of the desire to build a stronger relationship with the students, teachers and administrators within the D.C. Public School system, District Shakespeare ambitiously envisions a future where every DCPS student has the opportunity to see an STC production before they graduate.
The first step, currently under way, is to bring the work into the schools. Pairs of teaching artists provide free workshops to one class in every public middle and high school. With more than 50 schools on the list, the teaching artists have been busy racing across the city.
Schools get their choice of language, acting, design and combat workshops. The session at J.G. Whittier Education Campus, site of the inspirational poster, is on language. The artists enter in character and perform a scene chosen to grab the student’s attention. At the Whittier Campus workshop, The Taming of the Shrew’s Petruchio and Katharina battle verbally and physically. Just imagine the pre-teen students’ reaction to Katharina’s line: “Asses are made to bear, and so are you.” The students are hooked. When asked to summarize what they see, the students are spot on. When asked if they understood all the words, they are less enthusiastic. The teaching artists then work with the students by looking at Shakespeare’s tools to craft language. By the end of the session the students feel comfortable enough to put Shakespeare’s language in their own mouths. As the students performed for each other it is clear how much attention they have given the experience. Students, in a multitude of accents, perform segments of the scenes with each other. Many are able to recite a line or two without looking at the sheet of paper in front of them—even though they have only been given a few minutes to rehearse.
At the end of the session, teachers are left with follow-up activities to keep the lessons alive in the classroom. Next year will bring an even greater chance for connection as STC hopes to welcome more students into student matinees. Seeing a production provides interested classrooms with the opportunity to connect deeply to classical work. Giving a student the chance to see a dynamic performance can, as Director of Education Samantha K. Wyer phrased it, “elevate a young person’s life.” Through District Shakespeare, STC continues to make a commitment to enriching the lives of local students and helping them to see that the arts can inspire them to make every moment count.