Bringing the Bard online

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By Sue Postema Scheeres

Angela Hambleton, fifth grade teacher from Lafayette Elementary School, continued her Shakespeare club online with students after BVSD moved to remote learning.

Angela Hambleton, fifth grade teacher from Lafayette Elementary School, continued her Shakespeare club online with students after BVSD moved to remote learning.

When the Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s season and summer camps were postponed to 2021, festival staff members started focusing on the more immediate future.

What types of virtual experiences could they offer to students and community members for whom spring and summer are synonymous with Shakespeare? While some plans are still in the works, Amanda Giguere, the festival’s outreach director, recently described how they pivoted their programs to help students and the community stay connected with the Bard. 

“Shakespeare’s plays teach us so much about humanity, about moving through difficult circumstances and about putting our thoughts into words,” Giguere said. “We are committed to engaging with our community, even if that engagement looks different than our usual in-person programming.”

Preventing violence and building empathy 

Festival staff members are currently creating a virtual version of their Shakespeare and Violence Prevention program, which seeks to reduce bullying and violence in schools through performances and workshops for students in grades three to 12. 

The redesign began in the spring to provide training for Shakespeare Dallas, a performing arts group hoping to replicate the program in Texas schools. Representatives from the Dallas group watched the program for what turned out to be the festival’s final week of in-person school visits in March. Giguere was not able to travel to Dallas to train their staff in person. 

“Instead, we worked with our troupe to create a two-day virtual training and it was a huge success,” Giguere said. “We were able to model a sample classroom workshop with our teaching artists, share a pre-recorded performance and share best practices about this program.” 

In addition, shortened scripts of Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest, created for this year’s school tour, were put online. Staff members are now considering ways to share the virtual training and these scripts more widely, and collaborate with Shakespeare festivals around the United States to replicate the program.

They also are discussing with state educators how to adapt the performances and workshops to a virtual format for the school year tours, pulling on nearly 10 years of experience serving more than 100,000 students.

“At its core, this program is about building empathy; when we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, we are more likely to advocate for them when they’re mistreated,” Giguere said. “Teachers say the program is an enriching and creative experience for students that helps them learn and practice strategies for preventing violence. We want to continue to offer this resource to schools, whether we’re in-person or in a virtual format.”

Powering through with creativity 

The annual Will Power Festival also was redesigned. Through this program, professional actors work with local elementary school teachers and students to study a Shakespeare play in depth. Each spring, the students perform the play on campus.

When it became clear the in-person festival would be canceled, schools continued studying “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” in some cases creating their own version of the play, preparing virtual performances and more. Sean Scrutchins, the festival’s teaching artist, filmed and shared a four-part video series to teach students about voice, body, emotions and character development, and Giguere joined classes virtually to answer questions.

“I am so inspired by the teachers we work with on the Will Power Festival,” Giguere said. “They have found innovative ways to keep connecting their students with Shakespeare.”

For example, Angela Hambleton, who teaches fifth grade at Lafayette Elementary School and runs an after school Shakespeare club, restarted the club virtually on April 23 (Shakespeare’s birthday) when it became clear her students were eager to continue studying Shakespeare and needed a way to cope with current challenges. 

Building on the skills and community they had developed throughout the year, the students wrote a new play together titled “An Early Spring’s Daydream” that combines characters from various Shakespeare plays and includes new plot twists, sword fights and even an allergic reaction to a banana. 

“We decided to have the random collection of characters all be drawn into the magical forest on a quest for something,” Hambleton said. “In addition, they decided to make the women empowered and more determined to decide their own fates. I had a core group of about six to eight kids who showed up to “perform” our new script from their home learning spots every day for almost three weeks.”

Reshaping summer offerings

The festival is also developing virtual experiences that allow the community to continue to engage with Shakespeare in meaningful ways this summer.

“Often when making theatre, you’re forced to improvise and be creative with the resources you have and the space in which you are performing. And it can lead to incredibly beautiful, engaging work,” said Tim Orr, the festival’s producing artistic director. “Moving to a virtual environment is no different.”

Online resources for kids and adults include:

  • Introduction to Shakespeare. Giguere created a lesson for her first grader’s class to introduce Shakespeare and explain how he wrote in “heartbeat rhythm” (iambic pentameter). 
  • Hamlet for Kids. On a long car ride last summer, Giguere and her children wrote a children’s version of Hamlet. Kids were recently invited to submit illustrations; the story and pictures can be viewed in this video.
  • Virtual story time. The festival is working with local and national authors to provide virtual Shakespeare readings for kids. The first features a reading of author Megan McDonald’s Stink: Hamlet and Cheese in July.
  • Bard’s Summer Book Club. Each spring, the festival offers a book club for adults to read and discuss the plays from the summer season. The book club will also be held virtually this summer. Register now on the book club website.
  • CU Presents digital resources. Together with CU Boulder’s College of Music and Department of Theatre and Dance, the festival is bringing a season of artistic work and education online with the newly launched CU Presents Digital page.
  • Video greetings. Past and present festival artists will present creative greetings throughout the summer to attendees and through social media. Find them here.
  • Other videos, activities and resources. The festival has compiled Shakespeare-related resources for the community, including videos and activities from around the world. They are free and can be found on the festival’s website.