Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Battle of the Bard


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 (Bensenville, IL) 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. When she teamed up with Chicago Shakespeare Theater in 2015, the number grew to thirty and it reached over forty 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 (Skokie, IL), 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 (Chicago) 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 mimic 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 vice 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 vice 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.

Timothy J. 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. He is the author of three books, including Advanced Placement Classroom: Hamlet and Advanced Placement Classroom: Julius Caesar from Prufrock Press. Read more about Tim…

A.B.L.E. – Twelfth Night


Several months ago I was invited to attend the May 28 performance of Twelfth Night by Artists Breaking Limits and Expectations (A.B.L.E.) in the Courtyard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater and to write about it for
City Desk 400. The A.B.L.E. ensemble is comprised of twenty actors, ages 14-21, each with Down syndrome or other developmental challenges. I accepted the invitation with a combination of anticipation and anxiety. As the parent of a child with significant special needs, I welcome the opportunity to examine extracurricular programs that allow access to cultural and literary enrichment for students who are often denied those experiences in school. As a Shakespeare teacher and performer, I have worked with students for years and know something of the emotional intensity Shakespeare’s language provides. At the same time, I am perhaps overly cautious about enrichment programming that places students with special needs in situations that may be overwhelming or developmentally inappropriate for them.

Arriving at the crowded theater and taking my seat, I perused the program and saw that virtually all of the actors are veterans of the company, many of them performing in their seventh, eighth, even tenth production. So there must be something that keeps them coming back. My anxiety was further relieved when Katie Yohe, co-founder of A.B.L.E., came to the stage to introduce the show and explain a bit about the process through which it came to be. She described the A.B.L.E. philosophy that the actors should be able to “have fun” and concentrate on their relationship with their scene partners, rather than worry about memorization. Volunteer teaching artists and facilitators, holding scripts, would physically shadow the actors on stage, speaking the lines in two or three-word bursts, echoed by the actors.

The method worked. Somehow, standing behind the actors, the facilitators in black A.B.L.E. logo t-shirts were able to articulate the lines, project their reading for the audience, cue the actors, and yet not steal focus from the actors themselves. For their part, the actors infused their recitation of lines with flourish and intensity original to themselves, drawing the audience into a circle of understanding. Even ensemble members with less developed verbal abilities demonstrated passion for the intentions of their characters through vocal tone and gesture. Simple yet elegant costumes and accessories helped to identify the characters, as each was performed by different actors in different scenes, with each actor playing more than one character during the course of the performance. Occasional physical and verbal ad-libs on the part of the actors added to the levity in the production. Peter Van Kempen, one of the teaching artists, served as narrator to link together scenes. Van Kempen also provided music, along with his brother Paul and Kaylie Honkala.

This show was the third production of Twelfth Night I’ve seen as part of the Shakespeare 400 Chicago celebration, and each production has illuminated a different side of the work. In the rock and roll production by Britain’s Filter Theatre, the audience was treated as collaborators and the focus was on the zaniness of the characters and situations. In Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Short Shakespeare! Twelfth Night production, a streamlined text and clear direction invited young audience members into the story. In the A.B.L.E. show, the essential experience for me was in witnessing the process whereby Shakespeare’s language emboldens and invigorates young people who too often are denied the chance to do serious artistic and creative work in school. I wondered whether I would find Shakespeare in the show, or whether the pleasure would be in seeing the ensemble members perform. The answer was yes and yes. The level of challenge for the actors was both appropriate and rigorous, while the language of Shakespeare—the actual words and exchanges of dialogue, even in a script that was cut liberally—carried the day.

While we might expect that all students are routinely exposed to Shakespeare in school, that exposure is not always authentic. Working in schools throughout the Chicago area, I have seen a growing trend of replacing Shakespeare’s language, especially for students with special needs, in favor of more simplified versions called “No Fear Shakespeare” or other “adapted from Shakespeare” resources. As the Lexile scores (a simplistic mathematical formula for determining text difficulty) in the “No Fear” version appear to match what is considered appropriate for struggling students’ levels of comprehension (based on equally inappropriate tests), many teachers choose to march students through these lifeless scripts to avoid the difficulty, the confusion, and the ultimate illumination that is Shakespeare’s own language. If A.B.L.E.’s Twelfth Night demonstrated anything, it was that fidelity to Shakespeare’s language is essential. Cut the text, fill in the gaps with storytelling and gesture, but don’t take apart the powerful speeches and exchanges of dialogue that make Shakespeare magical. Hearing Viola/Cesario speak, with conviction and a smile, “Excellently done, if God did all,” provides much more pleasure than listening to a watered down version. And in this production, the echo effect of hearing two or three words spoken by the facilitator, then spoken again by the actor, allowed the words to submerge themselves in our minds:

Facilitator: O,
Actor: O,
Facilitator: then unfold,
Actor: then unfold,
Facilitator: the passion,
Actor: the passion,
Facilitator: of my love.
Actor: of my love.

Occasionally, an actor would anticipate the next words to come and would complete the line uninterrupted by the facilitator, which provided a thrilling reversal to the more common experience of hearing an actor lose a line.

Performing comedy is tricky under any circumstances, and even the most seasoned actors fear that audiences won’t respond. Considering the name of the A.B.L.E. organization, “Artists Breaking Limits and Expectations,” we might expand our notion of whose limits and whose expectations are being broken. Conventionally, we would think it is the artists’ limits and the audience’s expectations that are challenged through the work. But this group not only challenges expectations of what students with Down Syndrome can or cannot do, it also breaks the audience’s limits regarding how we perceive Shakespeare’s 400-year-old works. It calls into question who owns Shakespeare, who has the right to perform Shakespeare, and what makes Shakespeare appealing. I would suggest that the A.B.L.E. ensemble actors own Shakespeare on a personal level that I, having studied Shakespeare for over thirty years, cannot match. Actors in the company have developed a chemistry that transcends the play. They are serious, yet they display a sense of humor. They want their show to be a success, and they care about the story they tell.

It was nearly 50 years ago that Homer “Murph” Swander in California called on Shakespeare scholars and teachers to use performance as a way to immerse students in Shakespeare’s texts. “It’s a script, not a play!” Swander told his students, and he enlisted actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company to help spread his method. Getting students up on their feet and moving, speaking Shakespeare’s language, mining the text for clues to unlock intention and meaning—Swander’s teaching innovation has since become a well-known approach, carried forward by teachers around the world. Shakespeare’s language comes to life when activated on stage. I can’t help but think that Swander, now ninety-four, would have been moved if he had seen the A.B.L.E. Twelfth Night.

And who was this performance for? It was for the actors who would not have this opportunity without the grace of the A.B.L.E volunteers. It was for the families who got to experience their children performing Shakespeare on a professional stage. It was for the A.B.L.E. teaching artists and facilitators who believe in the power of theater to transform lives. Perhaps most of all, it was for the rest of us who were given the occasion to deepen our own humanity.

Katie Yohe and Lawrence Kern founded A.B.L.E. with the mission to provide “performing arts opportunities through which individuals with Down syndrome and other developmental special needs feel accepted and empowered to discover their own unique voices, and develop the confidence and skills to share who they are and what they are ABLE to do.” In order to establish that confidence and the feeling of acceptance and empowerment, an audience is required, and the audience must be moved by what transpires on stage. I believe, having seen the A.B.L.E. group work their magic with Twelfth Night, that every participant in the program knows what an impact they had on their audience, which is what every serious actor craves. The joy with which the entire ensemble sang the closing song, having cast a spell and taken us to Illyria with Viola and Sebastian, positively radiated from the stage. The standing ovation they received was as authentic as their performance.

This experience convinces me even more deeply that all youth must be granted access to extracurricular programs that allow them to stretch their limits. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act mandates that all students be afforded a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment, with access to supports to help them succeed. Sometimes, evidently, the least restrictive environment for personal, academic, and artistic growth comes outside the confines of the school. We must pursue and support endeavors of this kind.

Bravo Colleen, Quincy, Marissa, Alena, Rachel, Jack, Benjamin, Samuel, Natalia, Fletcher, Andrew, Emily, Emily, Lucas, Mila, Claire, Sam, Sam, Hannah, Lucy, and all the A.B.L.E. teaching artists and facilitators. Bravo!

Timothy J. 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. He is the author of three books, including Advanced Placement Classroom: Hamlet and Advanced Placement Classroom: Julius Caesar from Prufrock Press. Read more about Tim…

Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Short Shakespeare! Twelfth Night

UIC Architecture Building, Thursday. March 3, 2016.Charles Osgood Photography
Charles Osgood Photography

How do we experience love, and how do we handle its intensity? The wish to love and be loved flavors human experience, but as Shakespeare reminds us in Twelfth Night, we should be careful what we wish for.  Last Saturday, I attended a performance of Short Shakespeare! Twelfth Night in Chicago Shakespeare’s Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier. I was delighted by the 75-minute production and the conscientious educational scaffolding surrounding it. Even with some thirty percent of the text cut for performance, the cast conveyed the story, spirit, physicality and musicality that make the play a perennial favorite among Shakespeare fans.

Twelfth Night is a flexible text that may be played anywhere between farce and tragicomedy, depending upon which lines and plot points the director chooses to emphasize. Kirsten Kelly’s direction opens the text to its target audience: elementary, middle, and high school students. In the service of accessibility and, to some extent, propriety, this production de-emphasizes the implications of gender switching and drunkenness, instead providing an examination of love’s giddiness. Each of the main characters experiences the disequilibrium of sudden and consuming love, and each reminds us that losing ourselves in love may make us vulnerable to embarrassment, or even humiliation.

The opening scene features Neal Moeller’s likeable Duke Orsino, calling for more music to feed his unrequited love for the Countess Olivia. His request fuels a somewhat discordant ditty banged out on a broken-down piano, eliciting the first laughs that on Saturday would gain and sustain momentum throughout the show. Just as the scene ends, Viola (Rebecca Hurd), who has washed up on shore following a shipwreck that separated her from her twin brother, Sebastian, emerges on top of the piano inquiring of the Sea Captain (Lynn Robert Berg) “What country is this?”

This melding of scenes is made possible by Scott Davis’s clever stage design, mixing elements of an aristocratic but disordered residence with mast-like pillars, leaning askew, wrapped in torn curtains/sails the color of the sea. A minimum of furniture provides domesticity for scenes set in both Orsino’s court and Olivia’s estate, tied together with a large patterned rug. (As this production will travel to schools and parks following its run on Navy Pier, the design must be portable.) Rachel Healy’s costumes accentuate an early twentieth Century seaside boardwalk vibe. Viola’s decision to disguise herself as a boy, “Cesario,” in order to serve in Orsino’s court, launches the plot, and when we next see her, she looks like a paper carrier with vest, cap, tie and bicycle.

Viola very quickly falls in love with Orsino, complicating her role as his male emissary in the wooing of Olivia, elegantly played by Krystel Lucas. Of course, Olivia just as quickly falls for Viola/Cesario, believing her to be a young man. Hurd’s exuberant Viola, believable in her disguise, confides directly to the audience, “O time, thou must untangle this, not I. / It is too hard a knot for me t’untie.” Like a protagonist from an engaging young adult novel, she carries us with her into increasingly absurd situations.

La Shawn Banks, as Olivia’s imperious steward, Malvolio, develops an opposing, yet equally compelling relationship with the audience. When Olivia sends him to deliver a ring to Cesario/Viola, he must chase her down on her bicycle, cleverly lit and placed on blocks to give the appearance of fast-paced pedaling, while Banks runs in place at breakneck speed to catch her. In Saturday’s performance, the kids and adults in the audience erupted into spontaneous applause as he finally caught her attention. While his “self-love,” as Olivia calls it, makes him intolerable to the other members of her household, his almost child-like response to what he mistakenly thinks is Olivia’s love note and his hissing impatience with Olivia’s gentlewoman, Maria (Lydia Berger Gray), garnered some of the show’s biggest laughs.

Cutting the play demands that actors use gesture effectively to convey meaning. Kelly’s cuts emphasize plot movement. She features the gulling of Malvolio, engineered by the zany members of Olivia’s household: Maria and Sir Toby Belch (Ronald Conner), with Feste (Will Mobley), Fabian (Donovan Diaz), and the doltish Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who is, literally, “as tall as any man in Illyria,” thanks to Dominic Conti’s stature. Conner’s Sir Toby, in the words of the actor himself, is “a guy you love to see show up, and a guy you love to see leave.” Mobley, as Feste, ably performs the play’s iconic tunes on a miniature guitar and interjects his witticisms as much to the audience as to the other characters. The prankish fight between Cesario and Sir Andrew features boxing gloves rather than swords, emblematic of Kelly’s softening of the play’s rough edges. Perhaps in the desire to help the audience comprehend the play, a few of the actors occasionally exaggerated their expressions, but not to the point of distraction. The fast-paced movement and dissolution of the fourth wall kept Saturday’s young audience members engaged throughout the show.

After Malvolio falls for the bait of Maria’s feigned epistle of love from Olivia and shuffles off his usual decorum for smiling, cross-gartering and yellow stockings, Olivia places him into the care of his household enemies. Malvolio’s ill treatment—he is bound, blindfolded, and kept in the dark—soon wears thin even with Sir Toby, whose line, “I would we were well rid of this knavery,” hangs in the air for a second or two, acknowledging the corrosiveness of bullying. Malvolio is excluded from the happy realignment of relationships occasioned by the appearance of Viola’s supposedly drowned brother, Sebastian. In the final scene, however, after swearing to be “revenged on the whole pack” of them and storming away, Malvolio is coaxed back on stage to join the other characters to dance and sing with Feste, “And the rain it raineth every day.” This production thus strikes a note of forgiveness that a darker interpretation would omit. Perhaps Kelly is inviting the audience to find our common humanity through our lovesick foibles.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater takes its role as ambassador of Shakespeare’s work seriously, and the Short Shakespeare productions feature supports to the performance both before and after the show. For Twelfth Night, a folded, 8.5 x 11 quarto program includes a plot summary of the first three acts, several full-color photos from different scenes, and cast responses to the question, “Have you ever been a fool in love?” Just prior to opening curtain on Saturday, Nate Santana, who plays Sebastian, appeared on stage and, in addition to making the typical request to turn off cell phones, provided a short lesson on how to watch and listen to Shakespeare’s work, reminding the audience that it is okay to not understand every word, and that paying close attention to gestures, facial expression, tone of voice, and language can help them to follow the story. Immediately following the show, all cast members remained on stage for a Q & A session, deftly and generously hosted by Marilyn Halperin, CST’s Director of Education and Communications. Halperin made a point of taking questions from the youngest audience members and distributing the opportunities to respond amongst several cast members. One of the first questions came from a boy of about twelve who asked, “Do you think the other characters were too mean to Malvolio?” Clearly the boy had closely observed gesture, expression, tone and language.

Thinking about how students often experience Shakespeare in school, marching through the text and answering comprehension questions without considering Shakespeare’s words as a set of possibilities for actors, I wonder whether theater experiences such as this one would make for far better curriculum than that provided by the current testing regime. On Saturday, the school-aged audience members swarmed the actors for autographs and photos in the lobby following the show, reminding me of John Dewey’s assertion that the best kind of educational experience is that which leads the learner to desire another, similar experience.

Timothy J. 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. He is the author of three books, including Advanced Placement Classroom: Hamlet and Advanced Placement Classroom: Julius Caesar from Prufrock Press. Read More…