I just spent two dreamy weeks in the Berkshires of Massachusetts living at Shakespeare & Company, communing with very special friends, and training to take Shakespeare’s plays into high schools. Evenings involved bonfires with clear night skies, two meals with close girlfriends, two great hikes, two high schools, two farmer’s markets, two local festivals, two plays, two lakes, there was a lot crammed into a few weeks.
The highlight and reason for being there was the training and this is where you meet Kevin. He started the Fall Festival 24 years ago, a Shakespeare program in 10 Massachusetts and NY middle and high schools. Two directors go into the schools for 10 weeks every fall. They audition teens (NOT your normal audition and everyone that auditions will somehow be included), and they produce a 90 minute Shakespeare play to be performed at their own school, and then it travels to Shakespeare & Company to perform on their professional stage with ALL of the other high schools one weekend in November.
This is not your run of the mill program. The desire to reach into the hearts of youth is central, but doing so by empowering them with Shakespearian text. There is a strict THIS IS NOT A COMPETITION aspect to the program that includes all kids, stresses the banding together of the schools, and teaches acceptance, vocalizing what is a feeling versus what is judgment, and providing a safe environment to be yourself without shame. The results are confident, caring, kids with amazing camaraderie.
I walked into the high schools to help out with auditions and was blown away by the excitement of the young adults in the room. They were atwitter with anticipation and I was told time and again that this was the program they looked forward to ALL year. They choose Shakespeare over sports if it conflicts with the shows. But most of the kids are very active in many clubs and sports as Shakes & Co feels the importance of working around their schedules and will do everything in their power to make it work for each student. School comes first.
Play is stressed in the room and allowing your voice to be heard. It is a space to be themselves, admit if they are having a rotten day, and find acceptance in connection. Just one simple exercise in looking into each other’s eyes can be a huge shift in a teenager’s life. I observed the awkwardness of seeing and being seen change from nervous giggling into teary relief of acceptance.
I could go on and on as there is so much to tell and understand but I will conclude with the simple statement that our youth need this type of interaction. Seeing a room full of kids yelling complicated Shakespearian words with confidence was mind-blowing. They have grown up with this program in their schools and some kids even try to finagle a transfer to a school with the Fall Fest if their school is bereft. Take that football season! These kids are on top of the world with putting their souls into beautiful language and finding their own voice in the process. This will serve them for the rest of their lives.
Thank you, Kevin Coleman, for taking the risk of shifting society’s comfort with authenticity, and sticking your neck out to make a difference by sharing Shakespeare’s words with kids that are thought too ignorant to understand. These teens are savvy, folks, they connect all too well with Hamlet, Imogen, Phoebe, and Iago. They live “lives of quiet desperation” until someone comes along with a beautiful key to unlock their world. You rocked mine.