Among the most energizing and exciting events over the course of this year’s Shakespeare 400 festival has been the Battle of the Bard, a dynamic “Shakespeare slam” competition for high school students, produced in collaboration between Chicago Shakespeare Theater and Chicago Youth Shakespeare. The program brings together more than 300 students and teacher-coaches from 40 high schools across Chicagoland. Participating schools range from public schools and charters to private preps and religious academies; the students and teachers themselves represent a wide range of backgrounds, identities and communities. What all of these different individuals and groups have in common, however, is Shakespeare. Teams of four to eight students meet and work for months to prepare two scenes: a more or less straightforward Shakespeare scene and a creative “ensemble” scene that remixes and mashes up lines from any of Shakespeare’s works into a new whole. To keep judge and audience attention on the performers themselves, no costumes or props are allowed; the only set pieces permitted on stage are eight plain chairs, which teams may use however they wish. Before each performance, every team lays claim to the stage by introducing their school and declaring, “We own this space!” It is an energizing and inspiring way to begin a performance.
This review will focus primarily on BOTB’s November 14 “Final Bout,” in which nine teams competed on the main stage at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, but the BOTB program reaches far beyond one single event on Navy Pier. Prior to the competition period, teams convene for massive workshops to learn about Shakespearean language and performance techniques from expert scholars and theater practitioners. Using the skills that these workshops help them develop, the teams return to their home institutions to arrange, rehearse, and refine their two scenes. From then, they perform in one of three “preliminary bouts,” held at host schools across the region. The top nine teams go on to compete in the Final Bout in front of a panel of celebrity judges on the main stage of CST; in addition, one stand-out but non-advancing team is invited to perform as an opening act.
The atmosphere at every round is overwhelmingly positive and supportive. As BOTB’s organizers, emcees, and team-members often insist, “The points are not the point!” Judges do score every scene and teams are in competition with each other, but the shared objective among every BOTB participant is to empower students, teachers and performers. The rock-concert-like atmosphere of the Final Bout is especially optimistic and positive. The program’s resident DJ “Iamb” Patrick Budde keeps the energy up with his dynamic music selections. Between rounds, BOTB’s two emcees, Donovan Diaz and Sarah Ruggles, encourage spectators and team-members alike to dance, shout, and “own this space!” even from their seats. Every participant from the preliminary rounds is invited to attend the Final Bout at the CST main stage, and the positive energy is palpable. It is truly an extraordinary experience.
On the surface, of course, Battle of the Bard is a celebration of Shakespeare. “Bill,” as he is known to participants, is the factor unifying these diverse young students; they have traveled from across a vast metropolitan region to battle over “the Bard.” More precisely, though, BOTB is a celebration of young people, of multicultural community,
and of creativity.
During the first “scene round” of competition, teams perform a cohesive scene from one play. At the Final Bout, these ranged from an utterly terrifying rendition of the eye-gouging scene from King Lear(Oak Park and River Forest High School), to the miraculous reunion scene at the end of The Winter’s Tale (Christian Liberty Academy), to two of the funniest performances of Midsummer’s play-within-a-play that this lifelong Shakespeare student has ever witnessed (Prosser Career Academy in Chicago and Niles North High School in Skokie).
The second “ensemble round” allows for more flexibility and creativity: using language from any of Shakespeare’s plays or poems, teams invent their own scene. Some of these are more meditative explorations of a particular theme. Niles North, for instance, delivered a scene at the Final Bout entitled “The Generation of Love,” which mashed together lines and exchanges from several plays and sonnets that represent a variety of models of love. Where, the scene asked, does love originate, and how do we know it when we see it? As the scene’s chorus urged, no matter how the experience manifests for us, we would do well to “make love known” (Macbeth 2.3). Mundelein High School, by contrast, offered a meta-dramatic examination of acting. Shakespeare himself appeared on stage as a character, primarily speaking lines from the scene in Hamlet when the eponymous prince gives performance directions to an acting troupe. As other performers bungled some of his most famous lines (“To be, or not to be, that is the question”; “wherefore art thou Romeo?”; “Now is the winter of our discontent”; and so forth), Mundelein’s Shakespeare-as-director offered advice on delivery and language, advocating for a natural and authentic acting style. The Islamic Foundation School’s all-female team, who were invited to kick-start the evening as honorary performers, presented a powerful meditation on female identity. Opening with Miranda’s request in The Tempest that Prospero “tell me what I am,” the scene assembled, line by line, all of Shakespeare’s contradictory third-person definitions of women: “she is a strumpet,” “she is a piece of virtue,” “she is fierce,” “she is wise,” “she is rich in beauty,” “she is spherical, like a globe; I could find out / whole countries in her.” By the end, though, the syntactic formulation had shifted, and the performers went on to define themselves in the first person: “I am a woman.”
Other ensemble-round performances were more narratively driven, remixing Shakespeare’s lines to create a new story rather than a meditation on a theme. Two teams took on present-day politics, focusing in particular on October’s contentious Presidential debates. Lindblom Math and Science Academy’s aptly titled “Debate Tragedy” gave us a money-obsessed and deceitful but ironically named “honest Iago” debating an uncompromising, sharp-tongued “fair Beatrice.” After knocking over his chair in anger, the debate’s moderator denounced both candidates, wishing “a plague on both [their] houses!” Elk Grove High School’s Shakespearean debate, meanwhile, drew on the Bard’s vast trove of gender-based insults to give shape to the speech of the scene’s male candidate, who repeatedly bent down to his imaginary microphone to interrupt the female candidate with a sharp and low-voiced “Nay.”
Senn Arts Magnet High School’s ensemble scene took a different tack but still placed Shakespeare’s language firmly in a present-day context. In their “Rap Battle of the Bard,” Senn’s team imagined the Montagues and Capulets as rival hip hop crews. Their scene went on to offer a highlight reel of Shakespeare’s greatest insults and demonstrated just how thoroughly new generations might make the Bard’s four-hundred-year-old language their own, transforming his Renaissance London dialect to an African-American Vernacular-derived hip hop idiom.
Meanwhile, Kenwood Academy High School’s witty ensemble scene “Who Dost Thou Love?” was modeled after a dating show: four distinct suitors—a deceptive Iago, an angry Macbeth, a weepy Hamlet, and a sensitive Ganymede—competed for the affections of one picky woman (Katherine from The Taming of the Shrew). Kate picked Ganymede, who shocked the other male suitors by revealing herself to be a woman in disguise (Rosalind from As You Like It). The scene was uproariously funny—the violently angry male chauvinist Macbeth character being a particular standout—and cleverly used Shakespearean comedy’s gender-bending formula to offer a poignant critique of the representation of sexual norms in modern popular culture.
As a teacher and scholar of Shakespeare, the primary question I found myself asking throughout Battle of the Bard’s Final Bout was, “What does this program say about the value of Shakespeare today?” Every team offered a radically different (and totally fresh) perspective on his work and legacy. Even teams that presented similar content—like Prosser and Niles North, who both happened to perform the same scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Lindblom and Elk Grove, who both drew on the recent Presidential debates—distinguished their work by advancing completely unique approaches to the same material. In the process, they did not merely articulate what is valuable about Shakespeare, but generated that value themselves. They used Shakespeare to examine their own multilingual and multicultural worlds—to work through very modern concerns in ways that made Shakespeare’s historically distant and rhetorically difficult language seem completely familiar and immediately relevant. During the course of the program, these Battlers of the Bard came not only to “own” the space of the stage, but also the larger cultural idea of “Shakespeare” himself. The result was astounding. This is what Shakespeare should be. This is what Shakespeare will be. And this, the students definitively demonstrated, is what Shakespeare is.
Rebecca L. Fall is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of English at Northwestern University, where she teaches courses on Renaissance literature and media history. She is currently writing a book on nonsense writing, clownish language and silly jokes in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English literature. Her research has been supported by several nationally competitive fellowships, including the Mellon/ACLS and Mellon-CES Dissertation Completion Fellowships. Rebecca holds a PhD and an MA in English from Northwestern University, and a BA in English from the University of Virginia.