Battle of the Bard: Teenagers, Shakespeare, Community, and the Power of Narrative
On November 14, I attended Battle of the Bard: Final Bout at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier. The atmosphere was electric, even in the lobby before the show began, as diverse groups of high school students moved to find their friends and their seats. I was handed a program on my way into the Jentes Family Courtyard Theater and noted the first sentence on the back panel: “Battle of the Bard builds a culture of community spanning the Chicago region.” As I settled into my seat near the stage, a former graduate student of mine, Patrick Escobedo, approached to say hello. I asked him whether his students from Fenton High School were performing, and he said, “No, we didn’t make the finals, but we didn’t want to miss this.” He went on to explain what a positive experience the Battle had been for his students, detailing what they had learned about Shakespeare and about each other in the process of competing. I looked around and realized that several other schools not among the nine finalists had also come to cheer, to snap their fingers, and to feel a part of this culture of community.
The show included two emcees, Donovan Diaz and Sarah Ruggles, with Patrick Budde serving as DJ. They focused the crowd with some amusing repartee and music, then introduced the five judges for the event, including television stars Eamonn Walker and Joe Minoso, popular Chicago actor Ronald Conner, Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s casting director Bob Mason, and Carol Jago, author and national leader in English education. Prior to the competition, the audience was treated to a warm-up act, chosen from the 30+ schools that did not make the finals. A group of young women wearing “Battle of the Bard” tee-shirts, and matching salmon-pink hijabs filed onto the stage, stood together, and pronounced: “We are Islamic Foundation School, and WE OWN THIS SPACE!” The audience, mostly high school peers, but also teachers, parents, and friends, applauded as the performers launched into a powerful montage of lines from Shakespeare, beginning with the words “She is . . . ,” accompanied by various movement around the stage. Lines such as “She is fierce” and “She is made of truth,” rang through the theater in succession, and then at some point, almost imperceptibly, the lines changed to “I am . . . ,” with each actor proclaiming, “I am,” “I am,” “I am,” “I am,” and then, in unison, “I am . . . a woman!” After a split second of silence, the crowd erupted in cheers. The competition itself had not even started, and yet a powerful culture-spanning moment had already taken place.
Battle of the Bard is a collaboration between Chicago Shakespeare Theater and Chicago Youth Shakespeare. Following the warm-up act, Marilyn Halperin, Director of Education and Communications for CST and Manon Spadaro, founder of CYS, addressed the crowd and spoke briefly about the program’s philosophy. Spadaro founded Chicago Youth Shakespeare a few years back with the idea of “bringing kids together who would never otherwise meet each other and find common ground.” She designed the first Battle of the Bard competition in 2014, and nine schools competed. The number grew to 30 in 2015, when she teamed up with Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and it reached over 40 schools in 2016. Although the event is a competition, the overriding philosophy, as stated several times by the emcees and hosts, is, “The points are not the point!”
This year’s Battle of the Bard involved two competitive rounds, the Scene Round and the Ensemble Round. The Scene Round required each school group to construct a five-minute scene from Shakespeare, without the benefit of costumes and using only chairs for props. Every school began each scene with the name of their school, the title of their scene, and the pronouncement, “We own this space!” Four of the nine schools interpreted scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Kenwood Academy (Chicago) performed a hilarious take on Puck and the fairies, leading to the meeting of Titania and Oberon in the forest. Senn Arts (Chicago) took on the lovers’ quarrel between Helena, Hermia, Lysander, and Demetrius, with well-coordinated movement. Both Prosser Academy (Chicago) and Niles North (Skokie) performed excerpts from the “play within a play,” with very different takes on the scene.
Teams constructed their own scene titles, such as “Viola’s Weird Day” from Lindblom Math and Science Academy (Chicago) and “Don’t Take Love for Granted,” for a scene from The Winter’s Tale performed by Christian Liberty Academy (Arlington Heights). A team from Oak Park and River Forest High School did the blinding of Gloucester from King Lear, which they titled, “The Eyes Have It.” The group from Mundelein High School did the forgiveness scene in The Tempest, and Elk Grove High School offered a lovely duet scene between Juliet and the Nurse. Whenever a scene picked up energy, the finger snaps popped in the audience. Likewise, on the rare occasions when an actor struggled, the snaps rang out in support, to guide the actor through it. The judges perhaps had the most difficult job, as any score (on a 10-point scale) below a 9.0 was greeted with a chant from the audience of “Sleep no more!”
The Ensemble Round required the groups to take Shakespeare’s words and do a mash-up. In this round the creativity of the student actors emerged in full, as they used Shakespeare’s language to create new scenes and new narratives. The stories the teams told ranged from classic to contemporary, with many of the groups employing Shakespeare’s words to reflect current events. Niles North, the eventual winners of the competition, created a scene called “The Generation of Love?” addressing the problem of bullying by taking encounters from Shakespeare and presenting them as non-examples of love through mock-abusive performance choices. The ensemble created a quasi-Greek chorus effect by commenting on the various encounters, and they resolved their scene through reversal, portraying authentic, loving exchanges.
Several other teams used Shakespeare’s language to create political messages. Lindblom and Elk Grove both created “presidential” debates with Shakespeare’s language, one featuring Beatrice vs. Iago, and the other using Shakespeare’s lines as asides to mimick antics displayed in the 2016 presidential debates. Of special note was Kenwood Academy’s “Dating Game” format, titled “Who Dost Thou Love?” In the scene, Hamlet, Iago, Macbeth, and Ganymede (Rosalind) competed for a date with Katherine from The Taming of the Shrew. The scene included Wall to divide the contestants, and ended with Katherine choosing Ganymede over the hesitant Hamlet, conniving Iago, and angry Macbeth. Every scene was greeted with loud applause, and during the second round, the celebrity judges commented on the scenes, offering praise and encouragement to the actors. At the end of the competition, all student actors were invited onto the stage to take a group mannequin photo.
Reflecting on this event, I think about the motivations of the organizers, the generosity of the volunteers, and the coordination between teachers to make the event happen. But most of all, I think about the students involved and what they have at stake, what they have to gain, what they have to offer. These students from vastly different schools engaged in the same process of working to understand and interpret Shakespeare, using Shakespeare to, in essence, tell their own stories—to create new narratives. In many local schools, under the influence of the Common Core State Standards, the reading and composing of narratives has decreased significantly in favor of informational reading and argumentative writing. The Battle of the Bard occasions the development of collaborative, inventive, and powerful storytelling, shared in a mutually supportive environment between teenagers who, as Spadaro stated, “might otherwise never encounter each other.”
The resulting meta-narrative created by the event has a richer significance than any of the individual stories, powerful as they were. In that theater space on that night, we didn’t need to imagine teenagers from a Christian school cheering for teenagers from a Muslim school and visa versa. We saw it and heard it. We didn’t need to imagine students from the suburban schools cheering for and supporting students from urban schools and visa versa, or students of multiple ethnicities, cultural backgrounds, faiths, and economic situations mingling in a spirit of camaraderie, professionalism, respect, and fun. We lived it. Stepping on stage during the intermission that night, Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Artistic Director, Barbara Gaines, commented on what she had seen thus far and mused, “Don’t you wish the world could be this way?” Indeed.
Tim Duggan is an associate professor of Education at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, where he teaches English education and English courses, including Shakespeare, and coordinates a partnership between the University and Amundsen High School. He earned his EdD in curriculum and instruction from the University of South Dakota, his MA in English literature from the University of Nebraska and his BA in English literature from University of California at Santa Barbara. Read more about Tim…