Shakespeare: A worldwide classroom

Los Angeles - Part 2

February 26, 2013

One person I had to meet during my time in LA was Rafe Esquith and his Hobart Shakespeareans – an ensemble of Grade 4 and 5s. Every year they work on a different Shakespeare play, injecting a healthy dose of music and dance into each production.

Rafe is a legend among US Primary teachers, particularly for his book, Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire. This year they are working on Measure for Measure, no less. It is truly inspiring to see how these children draw such colour from Shakespeare's texts while living in such a drab environment, and no less inspiring that Rafe feels such a deep connection and responsibility to this community that he chooses to stay at this school despite many, many offers to move on.

Discipline in his classroom is tangible, but it is that artistic discipline stemming from passion for the work. 'Tell Tracy what you learn by doing Shakespeare,' Rafe said and a forest of hands went up declaiming variations on: patience, trust, to take chances, to work hard, to work together, it's okay to makes mistakes, to have fun.

The walls are festooned with pennants from universities across the country each accompanied by at least one plaque with the name of a former student. It will be no surprise that Rafe's students go on to achieve highly in comparison with their peers, and they don't ever forget him.

My high school visit was to Jefferson High where I met a drama class who showed me their festival winning all-female Julius Caesar - the murder scene. The girls explained they had gone for 'tough women' rather than trying to pretend to be men and suddenly these sweet, polite girls turned into ruthless politicians - no wonder they won!

Their teacher, the aptly-named Fabi, told me how much her students loved drama, especially Shakespeare and how important she thought it was that they owned that 'language of power;' then she told me that the drama programmes were being cut next year. That conversation encapsulated what I heard over and over again during my time in LA: that in 'The Entertainment Capital of the World'. this icon of the arts industry -  arts education programmes are drastically underfunded or being cut completely. And yet, in this temple of narcissism, it's arts programmes that can build real confidence and self esteem for so many young people living in very difficult circumstances.

Compared to the other countries I've visited, LA seems rich in Shakespeare opportunities, but clearly not as rich as it should be. As everywhere, there are pockets of brilliant passionate people changing lives, who could achieve so much more if their work was properly valued.

I talked with Megan and Joanne from East LA Classic Theatre who run an amazing programme of work for 'youth in underserved communities of color', and visited LA's very own Shakespeare Centre, complete with a huge black-box studio theatre. I was greeted by Chris Anthony, Associate Artistic Director with responsibility for the education programmes, a warm and wise woman who has developed the 'Will Power to Youth' programme. This is innovative programme recruits disadvantaged young people as actors or stage crew for a summer production, but pays them to do it as a summer job thus allowing far greater access to the project. Recently they have instigated an evening group, who are also paid for their work.

Tracy's WSF blog - LAA key aspect of ICA's work is arts methodology and I was fortunate to attend the last day of a five-week Saturday course for teachers of various subjects learning to use the arts in their own subject area. The Professional Development programme at ICA is led by Jan Kirsch who combines a wonderful playfulness with calm authority and with her organisation, I led a twilight [ie: after school hours] workshop with 42 local teachers. They were such an engaged and engaging group that the problems of tiredness after the school day and the large numbers quickly disappeared - helped, no doubt, by plentiful supplies of coffee.

Their professional opinions came through loud and clear: using the right approaches, Shakespeare is empowering:
'Due to cut backs, so many 'disadvantaged' kids don't get exposure. Shakespeare's work can be a source of intellectual empowerment or insecurity or a weapon used against them.'
'They know Shakespeare is culturally significant but they are intimidated and think his works may exclude them. When they experience his work, they are thrilled to learn that it does not.'

When asked what they enjoyed about teaching Shakespeare, there was much about light-bulbs and 'a-ha' moments:
'When kids start to get it, and understand the enormity of the emotion, a light shines in their eyes.' '[Shakespeare] lifts them into a larger world that is big enough for them to fill with their emotions.'
'I think they enjoy feeling like they're 'in' on something.'

LA is so rich in terms of its cultural diversity but several people talked to me of not much 'melting' happening in the 'pot'. However the arts clearly provide opportunities to bring different communities together and it's interesting to explore how Shakespeare can provide a resource and a voice for so many.

Photo by Tracy Irish shows LA teachers in a workshop © RSC

by Tracy Irish  |  No comments yet

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Teaching Shakespeare