Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Battle of the Bard

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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…

Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Battle of the Bard

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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.