Thursday, December 10, 2015

R&J: 60- A Creation Story

Adam King, ASC Elementary & Homeschool Programs Coordinator as
Romeo and Kati Grace Brown as Juliet Photo Credit: Daniel Parvis Photography

It is probably no surprise that year after year the Atlanta Shakespeare Company receives the most student matinee ticket requests for Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. Countless students of all ages, particularly freshmen English students, encounter this play and the wisest of teachers plan to spend one of their coveted fieldtrip spots on a trip to our Playhouse to see those immortal words brought to life. And year after year, no matter how we try to modify our performance schedule in order to accommodate each and every school group, some schools are left on the waiting list without having the chance to experience a performance. As an administrator with the Atlanta Shakespeare Company’s Education Department, this fact troubled me. As a professional actress with the company who auditioned for our yearly rendition of this play time and time again only to walk away with an ever-growing sense that I might never have the opportunity to captivate an audience with Juliet’s text, I saw an opportunity. As a woman quickly approaching thirty coveting the role of a thirteen year-old, I was running out of time. I charged ahead. 

Out of respect for the incredible work done by our colleagues in the Georgia Shakespeare Festival’s Education Department deploying touring productions to schools through Georgia and, I believe, the surrounding states, ASC had always passed on the suggestion that we “throw six actors in a van” to reach a greater number of schools. Our two theatre both shared a commitment to present Shakespeare’s plays to the citizens of Atlanta, albeit through completely different performance styles. However, when the Georgia Shakespeare Festival’s doors closed, much to our dismay and the dismay of the greater Atlanta theatre community, it seemed that now there was a terribly important and valuable void to fill. As a Department, we became committed to the powerful and valuable mission that the Georgia Shakespeare Festival began to serve school populations that, for whatever reason, simply could not venture to us.

Teaching Artists O’Neil Delapenha, Vinnie Mascola and
Mary Ruth Ralston as Mercutio, Lord Capulet and 
Lady Capulet with Adam King and Kati Grace Brown as Romeo and Juliet. 
Credit: Daniel Parvis Photography

The first challenge was to adapt the script of Romeo and Juliet for five actors. Our company utilizes a style of performance known as Original Practice, and, in observance of that style, we rarely cut very much of a play, choosing rather to bring the existing text to life in accordance with what we believe Shakespeare’s actors would have done. I took on the task of script adaptation, inspired by the incredible, hour-long Shakespeare productions toured by the Barter Players of Virginia’s Barter Theatre, and I found a great deal of joy in the puzzle-like task of doubling and tripling characters in practical and thematically-driven ways. I drew further inspiration from being afforded the opportunity to design the script to fit myself and my dear and trusted colleagues in the Education Department. I mention that the cast was entirely made up of teaching artists already employed by ASC because, while our Artistic Director had greenlit the project for a trial run in Winter 2015, it was with the understanding that payroll and other costs be kept down wherever possible. The costumes, props and set were scavenged from pieces that we already had in-house with the intention that Capulets would wear green, Montagues blue, and royalty purple. While not the most nuanced of choices, the bold colors identifying clan and status certainly helped our younger audiences keep track of who was who amidst the seven- and twelve-second costume changes. Promotional shots were taken and every school on our waiting list was contacted and offered this alternative experience.
The Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse stage.
Credit: Daniel Parvis Photography 

One thousand, one hundred and eight students saw our first tour of Romeo and Juliet Abridged at various venues including one completely free performance in-house on the Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse stage, a performance for an audience comprised entirely of students with special learning needs and another for students in an at-risk intervention group whose mission is to inspire and challenge Atlanta Metro eighth graders to stay in school. That turnout was accumulated with no official publicity besides a handful of personal emails sent by members of our staff to our wait-listed teachers. We immediately made plans to offer the tour again, rebranded as R&J:60, and to seek funding partnerships to widen its scope.

During the fall of 2015, the previous cast returned for a successful fall tour in which we upgraded the look of our product by bringing in a professional costume designer. ASC invested in brand-new rapiers for us to bring out on the road and our Board of Directors generously gifted us a fifteen-seat passenger van, which was a great improvement over shoving set pieces into our personal vehicles or repeatedly renting a van or truck. We partnered with the City of Atlanta’s Office of Cultural Affairs to offer 1,000 free tickets to Atlanta Public High School students at our Playhouse. In total, we reached 10,415 students. And after a year of being the guinea pigs, our original cast will hang up our Velcro costumes pieces and pass the torch to the 2016 crew.

Based on the enthusiastic response to our first tour, we submitted an application for the NEA Shakespeare in American Communities grant, in which we proposed to bring R&J: 60 to schools in under-served and rural communities throughout Georgia and were graciously funded enough money to do just that. Our six person tour troupe will visit nineteen schools throughout the state from February through May 2016 and bring our abridged production and interactive workshops to approximately 9,740 students who would not otherwise be able to take advantage of our programs.
Adam King as Romeo brings the Balcony Scene to life 
as 600 McIntosh High School 
(Peachtree City, GA) students look on. 
Credit: Daniel Parvis Photography

There is no way for me to express the utter joy that I felt each and every day working on my two tours as Juliet, as well as Gregory and Tybalt. I have admitted many times that while the core mission was always to bring Shakespeare to more students, it was with no small bit of selfish motivation that the idea for this program was conceived. For a while I felt a certain amount of guilt in the relish I took playing this iconic role, surrounded by my friends and Shakespeare family. The number of students that we have reached with Shakespeare’s words and their enthusiastic reactions to watching us perform absolves me.

Charging ahead once more, as I seem to know no other pace, it is with attempted grace and humility that I prepare to head back into the rehearsal hall of the 2016 R&J:60 in a new role as assistant director. I cannot wait to see what a new cast will do with these words and I am thrilled beyond measure to send them off into Georgia, inspiring students of all kinds. But, in particular, it is my hope that perhaps they might inspire a new generation of young ladies who will share my passion to utilize creativity in order to overcome obstacles and perform one of Shakespeare’s leading ladies themselves, no matter how unlikely.  

Written by Kati Grace Brown
Educational Programs Producer, Atlanta Shakespeare Company