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Shakespeare in the City unlocks student creativity

Program struggles to raise funds to continue hosting free theatre program for middle, high schoolers

Brown community members lining up to see the Theatre Arts and Performance Studies department’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” last month may have been surprised to see gaggles of shoulder-high middle school students on the scene.

Many of these students received ticket waivers to attend the play, said Nancy Safian, academic events programming and facilities coordinator in the TAPS department. Each student in attendance goes to a school participating in Shakespeare in the City, a theater program that connects students and teachers from public, independent and charter schools in Providence.

A confidence booster

SITC was founded by Martha Douglas-Osmundson, an English teacher at Lincoln School, an all-girls, independent college preparatory school. While on a trip to London, Douglas-Osmundson  happened to see a production of “Hamlet” performed by children. “It was not precious,” she said. “I had never seen Shakespeare like that before.”

Douglas-Osmundson started SITC in 2009 with her own production of “Hamlet.” Having run successfully for seven years, the program counts among its participants local schools such as the Rhode Island School for the Deaf, Gilbert Stuart Middle School, Hope High School, Classical High School and Meeting Street School.

For SITC’s productions, Douglas-Osmundson cuts each play down to one and a half hours, and each school is assigned a scene to perform from the play.

Students of various ages take the stage. For the past few years, second graders from Meeting Street School have been opening the program’s shows.

Douglas-Osmundson enlists her entire eighth grade class to participate in the program. The variation in student actors’ comfort levels on stage enriches the viewer’s experience, she said.

When large groups of students participate from a single school, teachers are forced to get creative about staging their segments. Often, multiple students play a single character.

“If you look at different parts of the stage, you will be watching different plays,” said Rachel, a 12th grader at Lincoln and SITC alum whose last name has been omitted for privacy reasons as a minor. “It’s never boring. No two people do it the same way.”

Performing the text herself began to make the language of Shakespeare’s plays more natural, giving Rachel an entirely different understanding of Shakespeare, she said.

“The most amazing thing about SITC is the amount of confidence it builds,” said Jane, another Lincoln student and SITC alum.

Rachel’s experience with SITC gave her the confidence to audition for the senior show at Lincoln this year. “Auditioning is the hardest part for me,” she said, adding that SITC has allowed her to start to think of herself as a “theater person.”

“Speaking as a teacher myself, (SITC) can be a real education for my girls,” Douglas-Osmundson said, speaking in terms of their exposure to different lifestyles and perspectives.

“Everyone who goes to this school is privileged to go here and receive the education we have,” Jane said. “As diverse as we are, we have had the same education and opportunities. So it was amazing to meet so many people I might not necessarily have ever met before.”

A stage for all the world

For some of SITC’s participants, mastery over Shakespearian language comes second in difficulty to making it to rehearsal itself. At Gilbert Stuart Middle School, where Xenia Walker MAT ’92 teaches drama to middle schoolers, many parents work multiple jobs, making transport coordination at late hours complicated.

Connie Crawford, adjunct lecturer in TAPS, has been taking her Engaged Scholars class, TAPS 0030: “Introduction to Acting and Directing,” to Gilbert Stuart and other local public schools. Crawford and Brown students help Gilbert Stuart students improvise over-the-top movement to suit their characters, the Rude Mechanicals.

At a recent rehearsal at Gilbert Stuart, Crawford looked on as Alexis, a student playing Thisbe, twirled at the end of a line. “Hold on. Can you dance?” Crawford asked. “Do you have a move?”

“He dabs,” said Lisbeth, another one of Walker’s students. “It’s kind of like a sneeze,” she explained to a perplexed Crawford.

Alexis broke into a wide smile and quickly recomposed his face. He delivered his line again and finished it off with a flurry of dabs, prompting resounding cheers from his classmates.

“That’s his moment now,” Crawford told The Herald, pointing to the incident as an example of Shakespeare coming alive for students.

Crawford and Safian also organized two workshops at Brown for all schools participating in SITC. Crawford’s class helped facilitate the workshops last semester.

“It’s one thing for them to come to us, but another for us to go to them,” Crawford said, explaining her desire to increase Brown students’ involvement in the program. “It’s a way of saying your school is just as important as mine.”

Walker added that for lots of her students, trips to Brown make them consider the possibility of going to college themselves. “I hear them say things like, ‘I am going to go here,’” she added.

The workshops also featured translators for students whose first language is not English, a consideration Walker appreciated as a teacher who has previously worked with two solely Spanish-speaking girls on SITC.

Walker found creative ways to make the original texts inclusive of her students’ background and experiences. In “Romeo and Juliet,” she had the two Spanish-speaking girls try to explain the contents of a letter to Peter, an illiterate servant of the Capulets, entirely in Spanish.

“The point of the scene was miscommunication, so it worked really well,” Walker said. “I think Shakespeare would have approved.”

Making it big

In its first iteration, SITC staged “Hamlet” at Lincoln School’s auditorium, Douglas-Osmundson said. Girls from Lincoln School played host to the participating schools during the group rehearsals as well as the final show. “We felt like ambassadors of our school,” Rachel said.

“Some of the students who come find it amazing that they are welcomed and can hold their own with kids who go to private schools in the city,” Douglas Osmundson said.

Brown Master’s of Fine Arts students led icebreakers and bonding games during rehearsals that allowed participants to get to know each other, Douglas-Osmundson added.

The Lincoln School auditorium was too small to accommodate all the performers and an audience at the same time. Students were allowed to bring two audience members to see the show but did not get to see the performances of their peers.

In 2014, a spell of awards and grants allowed Douglas-Osmundson to move the annual show to The Veterans Memorial Auditorium in downtown Providence. An Arts in Education Grant from the Veterans foundation footed the bill for the auditorium for the 2014 and 2015 shows.

“Now you can invite two people plus your tennis team,” Rachel said, adding that the experience of watching other participants perform allows students to appreciate the collaborative nature of SITC. “You’re on for like 10 minutes, and you pass the baton.”

Finding funds

This year, Douglas-Osmundson struggled to raise money to continue paying the Vet’s venue rental fees. A recent policy change made her ineligible for the Arts in Education grant as a previous winner, so Douglas-Osmundson turned to Rhode Island State Council on the Arts for help. An award of $3,500 covered only half of the expenses, and Douglas Osmundson was forced to look to colleagues, friends and parents for help.

Each participating school was also asked to contribute $120 to the fundraising efforts.

Walker said she remembered receiving the email requesting a contribution from individual schools and thinking, “How are we going to manage this in a school where a large percentage of students get free lunch?”

Walker organized a bake sale at Gilbert Stuart, vending sweet treats for students in after-school programs over two days. Walker recalled that some of her students walked the halls after school hours on the second day, attempting to sell their last few cinnamon chips and brownies to the remaining adults in the building.

Gilbert Stuart managed to raise $122, reaching its target by the skin of its teeth. “We just had to do it,” Walker said.

While SITC raised the required amount in time to keep the show at the Vets this year, Douglas Osmundson finds herself faced with the daunting prospect of starting from scratch next year.

“It’s ridiculous to think that $6,000 is the difference between SITC happening and not happening,” Douglas Osmundson said. “Kids from this widely diverse, teeny city with all its problems come together with the lofty goal of pulling off a Shakespeare play,” she added.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” will be held at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium May 25. Curtain call is at 6 p.m., and the event is free and open to the public.


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