31 December 2017

Shakespeare REMIX

[My friend Erin Woodward, who teaches theater in the New York City public schools, has been engaged in an after-school program called Shakespeare REMIX for several years.  I’ve seen a couple of the program’s performances from her school and I find it a fascinating and innovative effort in arts education—or rather, the use of the arts, in this case theater, as a teaching paradigm—not to teach theater precisely, but to teach . . . well, intellectual curiosity and inquiry.  I hope you’ll see what I mean by that somewhat cryptic characterization.  In any case, when I saw the first REMIX performance last year, I knew I had to blog on the program.  Now, here’s my effort to that end.]

In 2001, a group of theater professionals, some teaching artists, others working theater pros (including actors, directors, managers, and playwrights), launched the Epic Theatre Center.  (In 2007, the company changed its name to Epic Theatre Ensemble to “reflect Epic’s identity as a collective of actors, writers, directors, educators and activists who share a passion for utilizing the theatre to empower voices, foster dialogue, inspire self-exploration and spur social change.”  Neither name seems to be related to the Brechtian concept of Epic Theater, however.)  Among this founding collective were some of the company’s current leaders: Executive Director Ron Russell, a director, and Artistic Director Melissa Friedman and Associate Artistic Director James Wallert, both actors.  Their thrust from the start was to forge links between schools and students on the one side and performing artists and the professional stage on the other.  The company focused its efforts on integrating youth development, the training of citizen-artists, and the production of politically-oriented plays (both new and from the classic repertoire).  In 2005, Epic Theatre was instrumental in founding the Bronx High School for Writing and Communication Arts (BHSWCA), a New York City public school on the Evander Childs Educational Campus on East Gun Hill Road in Williamsbridge with a unique writing curriculum into which the arts are integrated.  

That same year, Epic commissioned No Child . . . from Nilaja Sun, an actor and teacher in the New York City system since 1998.  No Chid . . . is based on Sun’s experiences teaching theater over eight years in New York City public schools, composited into the fictional Malcolm X High School in the play.  A one-actor play with a title derived from the controversial George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, No Child . . ., described by in the New York Times as “a lightning-paced, multi-character solo play in the style of John Leguizamo,” was presented in 2006 at the Barrow Street Theatre in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village with Nijala as a version of herself (named Miss Sun).  The play received good reviews and won the 2007 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Solo Show, the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Solo Performance, the Outer Critics’ John Gassner Playwriting Award, the Theatre World Award, the Obie Award for Performance, and a nomination for the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Solo Performance.  In essence, No Child . . ., though based on Sun’s experiences teaching and directing theater in the schools predating Epic’s founding, is a portrait of the troupe’s philosophy and practices, especially the program it calls Shakespeare REMIX.

In its first half dozen years, Epic Theatre launched such programs as the yearly young people’s Summer Intensive which evolved into the Epic NEXT Arts Leadership Program, the Shakespeare REMIX after-school program, and the five-week Youth Theatre Festival (Epic YTF) which presents performances from Epic NEXT, Heather Raffo’s Places of Pilgrimage residencies, and Shakespeare REMIX.  In 2011, Russell became Executive Director of Epic, Friedman was named Artistic Director, and Wallert assumed his role as Associate Artistic Director.  The company’s mission, in their own words, “is to create bold work with and for diverse communities that promotes vital discourse and social change.”  This they accomplish by encouraging students to be “creative and engaged citizens,” putting forward powerful ideas that challenge people’s thinking, and fostering collaborations among artists, students, and opinion-makers to produce plays about important issues of our time, such as their 2010 New York première of Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play.  “Because theatre has a JOB in this world,” insists Russell of the troupe’s purpose.  “It is not an entertainment.  It is an incredibly powerful tool for social change.  For awakening, particularly in young people, a thirst for rigor, and self-expression, and courage, the courage of speaking with truth and clarity in front of an audience . . . .” 

One student in an Epic program declared, “Epic pushes us to be citizen artists rather than just artists—artists that have something to say about their country, their community.”  Another, now a college student, said that “the most important thing I took away from the program was political awareness,” and added,

I’m 99 percent sure that if Epic had not come to my school I would not have been anywhere near as involved in any of the social or political issues that I am now.  I definitely would not be at a liberal arts college.  I wouldn’t be here.

Other student performers spoke of increased self-confidence born of the work with Epic, the ability to be self-assertive, particularly when confronted with teasing or bullying over perceived differences. 

In 2003, Epic launched its after-school youth-development program Shakespeare REMIX at Chelsea Career & Technical Education High School in lower Manhattan (just west of SoHo).  Epic co-founder Melissa Friedman, a teaching artist with Theatre for a New Audience and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, had been working at Chelsea with Robert Mitchell, veteran English Language Arts (ELA) teacher and Coordinator of Student Activities at the school.  Mitchell, now the vice principal of Chelsea CTE, expressed interest in doing an after-school Shakespeare program. (Chelsea CTE is where Erin Woodward teaches theater.  She’s contributed to Rick On Theater—Erin’s the author of “The Cheapening of the Standing O,” posted on 8 February 2015—and her father, Kirk, is a frequent guest-blogger on ROT, including “Thoughts On Rehearsals,” his last contribution on 26 December.) 

REMIX grew to include three New York City public high schools in Lower Manhattan (Chelsea CTE), Harlem (Urban Assembly School for the Performing Arts), and the Bronx (BHSWCA). (The program briefly expanded to four city schools with the addition of the Frances Perkins Academy at Automotive High School in Brooklyn, but currently operates in only the original three.)  The program takes its name from the recording industry where a “remix” is a piece of music which has been changed from its original form by adding, removing, or altering elements—or any combination of these processes—to create something new.  Any work of art—a song, a painting, a book, a video, or a photograph, say—can be remixed.  

In Epic’s Shakespeare REMIX, teams of actor-mentors work with the students (about 200 in all Epic partner schools) for four afternoons a week over a three-month period.  They discuss the chosen play’s social and political issues fully, analyze Shakespeare’s text, and then intertwine their own writing into Shakespeare’s original dialogue.  In the words of an Epic promotion statement, “Students remix the meaning of an original Shakespeare piece with the help of a professional artistic mentor to push their thoughts far beyond measures they have imagined.  A bridge is created in between the time of the plays and their time once they’re able to recreate an original piece and make it their own. At the festival each borough presents their remixed piece which provides the youth with a captivating experience that can encourage them to get deeper in touch with their theatrical side.”

The final remixed scripts, Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr., an Epic actor who’s appeared in several REMIX productions, estimates, usually contain about 10 to 20% student writing, leaving the rest as Shakespeare composed it.  “The students are using rigorous research and text analysis, combined with their native earnestness, empathy, thoughtfulness, and insightfulness . . .,” Epic Executive Director Russell declares, “to sculpt a truly original vision of theatre that will be impactful on their community.”  The program culminates in fully produced plays with students performing alongside professional theater artists.

“The rhythm of Shakespeare’s text is the hook,” says Friedman, Epic’s Director of Education, “and the students connect it with some of the kinds of poetry that they like, like rap and spoken word.  It’s the way into his plays, and they really respond to it.”  As if to illustrate Friedman’s assertion, a 16-year-old REMIX student actor, who’d never encountered Shakespeare’s plays before he worked on Much Ado About Nothing in 2012, confessed, “It just blew my mind.  You go through and find the metaphors and entendres.  Reading it was pretty cool, but when we started to stage it, you saw how much he wrote for actors.  There was just so much freedom.”

Student actor Kayla Bennett of the Bronx agrees: “I like it because it’s not easy.  It’s not regular words.  You have to look inside the text and really understand it and break it down.  Once you know what he’s saying, you know what to do onstage.  Because it’s a challenge to do so, that’s why I like it so much.”  Actor Simmons explains, echoing Friedman’s words:

Epic feels that working with young people on Shakespeare, parsing out the language, understanding the language and using that language within the context of their own lives is very important to understanding themselves—understanding the world while at the same time broadening their experience, broadening their vocabulary, being able to take the words that somebody else has written in heightened language and be able to speak that in front of people, we feel is crucial to their development as young people.

Then he adds: “Once they begin to understand what's happening in the play and what the story is, they begin to understand what's actually being said on the page.  They begin to broaden their vocabulary and they begin to be able to talk about how what's going on in Verona in the 15th century affects them right now.”  Simmons continues: “Teaching artists who are in the play come in and work with the students, help them learn the language, teach them the backstory and then they come in and see the play.  They have a different experience.  They have the backstory. Experiential learning is the way to go with Shakespeare.”  This is the educational rationale of Shakespeare REMIX; it validates both the students’ experiences and perceptions and the universality and impact of Shakespeare’s 400-year-old observations and depictions.

Working with theater designers, the student actor-playwrights also learn about lighting, costuming, and sound as they rehearse their remixed plays for performance before audiences of peers, parents, and the public at an Off-Broadway theater.  Finally, working with Epic artists (and sometimes school faculty as well) as mentors and castmates and directed by a member of the Epic company, the students present this entirely new piece of theater, speaking Shakespeare’s words and their own to connect these classic plays to their time and their world through the interconnected texts of five centuries ago and today.  Friedman insists that the socio-political points in the remixed text come totally from the students themselves, not some ambitious director.  For example, for Harlem’s Urban Assembly School for the Performing Arts’ Taming of the Shrew, directed by Friedman in 2016, the students wrote new scenes focusing on the play’s subjugation of women and turned the play into a call for justice.  The new play was presented as a live taping for TV of the diegetic Crystal Sly Show for the ruling tyrant of a patriarchal society in which women have no right to vote and are required to submit to arranged marriages.  As for what the young playmakers want adults in their audiences to take away from their efforts, an actor playing Petruchio demanded, “I want to not only show the problem but put them metaphorically in the driver’s seat and say, ‘You can fix this.’  I want the audience personally to feel like, ‘Yes, there’s a problem.  How do we fix it?’”

In the remix of Richard III by Chelsea Career & Technical Education High School in 2008, the student co-authors added this warning:

Look out for “Richards.”  Don’t look for the curved back or misformed shape, ’cause you gotta look inside a man to witness his face.

After the political campaign year of 2016, that sounds mighty perceptive and astute—except that this Richard III  was created seven full years before a certain presumptive presidential nominee rose to political prominence and the Oval Office.  So, prophetic as well, then.  (In the 2016 remix of Macbeth in last year’s YTF, one of the potential successors to Macbeth’s throne is a buffoonish, Trump-like corporate mogul named Paul.  Who says kids today are oblivious to current events and politics?)

In 2009, Shakespeare REMIX won the Coming Up Taller Award (now known as the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award), a recognition of exemplary community arts and humanities programs made jointly by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, and the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. (At the 4 November White House award ceremony, First Lady Michelle Obama, Honorary Chairman of the President’s Committee, proclaimed of the recipients, ”You ask our young people to dream and you give them the tools to fulfill those dreams.  You affirm that their contributions are valuable and that their success matters to all of us.”) 

In a review of the 2010 REMIX production of Othello by students of BHSWCA, Nicholas Job wrote on New York Theatre Review:

Ron Russell [Epic’s Executive Director and the director of Othello] . . . has done a wonderful thing with these students and this piece.  By challenging his student actors to create an entirely new piece from the fabric of Othello, he’s empowered them with a unique understanding of Shakespeare’s words and meaning.  In addition, by giving them an opportunity to make their acting debuts with Shakespearian verse, in what many would consider a challenging play even to professionals, he’s instilled in them the confidence to handle classical text at an early age.  It’s exciting, inspiring, and at times, incredibly entertaining.  But don’t think just because his cast has only two professional actors Mr. Russell is interested in playing it safe.  He makes the bold choice to employ cross-gender casting for the cunning soldier at the center of the play . . . .

(BHSWCA’s Othello, which Job described as “a bit more of a mash-up and less a Remix,” was moved to the present day, with Desdemona the head of an entertainment law firm who’s “eventually s[u]nk by an untimely death, an affair, and rampant mistrust amongst her employees.”)

On Monday evening, 21 March 2016, I went up to Harlem’s National Black Theatre at 5th Avenue and 125th Street/Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard to see Shakespeare REMIX: Henry 4, presented by Epic Theatre Ensemble’s Youth Theatre Festival.  It was my first exposure to the work of this program, but as I’m a firm supporter of theater and arts programs in schools, and because the cast of Henry 4 were Erin’s students at Chelsea, I knew I had to be there to see what it was all about as well as to show my support for Erin and her ensemble.  (In 2017, I went up to Harlem again to see CTE’s Much Ado  About Nothing remix on Saturday evening, 18 March.)  Epic YTF ran at NBT from 4 March to 5 April, with Henry 4 in performance on 19, 21 (two shows), and 22 March.  (The other plays, presented by different schools, in 2016’s YTF were Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew; 10467, a play, named for a Bronx ZIP code, about the inequities of New York City schools funding created by participants in Epic NEXT; Noura, a work in progress by Heather Raffo, with Ibsen’s A Doll’s House; and Shakespeare’s Macbeth.)  I was so taken with the concept, not to mention the work demonstrated by the student performers and writers, that I immediately began thinking about learning more about Shakespeare REMIX and almost certainly writing a blog post on the program and its process.

Chelsea CTE’s Henry 4 was moved all the way to 2042, an election year in which President Henry Bollingbroke is running for his second term.  The country is under siege by foreign powers, civil rights militants, the news media, and the National Rifle Association.  (Erin played one of the TV news crew and an NRA minion, as well as serving as a co-producer.)  The NRA is backing the president’s opponent, Hotspur Percy, while Bollingbroke is trying to groom his son, Harrison, to succeed him (though it’s daughter Henrietta who’s the more activist).  As the program put it, “Part family drama, part barroom comedy”—and I’d add political intrigue—“Henry 4 gives us a glimpse of America on the brink.”  In its cynical view of contemporary American politics during the 2016 extreme campaign season, the team of four student writers and co-directors Asher Gill, a student with Epic NEXT and an actress and model who’s a member of the 10467 ensemble, and James Wallert, an Epic founder and Associate Artistic Director of the company, have given us plenty of skullduggery, corruption, betrayal, a helluva lot of gunplay, and, to paraphrase the line in Irma La Douce, everything, in fact, that makes politics worth doing.  But, my God!  If our politics gets half as nasty in the next 25 years as the cynical creators of Henry 4 predict—I doubt we’ll make it that far!  (This isn’t a complaint, just a horrified observation.  I mean, satire is one thing . . . but, wow!  Thank goodness, I probably won’t be around to see it.)

As you’ve seen from the few examples I’ve cited already, remixes recontextualize Shakespeare’s plots, often moving the time up a few centuries, though not all are reset in our era.  The students at UASPA, for example, transposed 2016’s Macbeth up to the 1890s in a South American dictatorship ruled by a military junta.  A 2011 remix of Romeo and Juliet was reset to 1938 in southern Germany following Kristallnacht.  The daughter of a wealthy Jewish family has fallen in love with the son of a neighboring family who’re flirting with National Socialism. (CTE’s Much Ado was reset in contemporary times, but took place in Messina High School, a New York City school where “gossip fills the hallways, classrooms, and bathrooms.”  Yes, that’s right—there were scenes set in the school johns, complete with stalls!)  Erin, who’s worked with Shakespeare REMIX since her second year at Chelsea CTE—she’s also involved at various levels with Epic’s in-class projects as well—identified three REMIX techniques that the students have used: building new writing and scenes within the established concept of the play (2004’s Romeo and Juliet, ’05’s Much Ado About Nothing, ’06’s Hamlet, ’08’s Richard III, ’08’s Winter’s Tale, ’12’s Henry VI), a modern retelling that runs parallel to the original text (’09’s Macbeth, ’11’s Measure for Measure), and, as applied to Henry 4, a combination of existing Shakespearean text and new student writing within a specific, original concept and setting (’07’s Othello, ’12’s Hamlet, ’13’s Twelfth Night, ’14’s Romeo and Juliet, ’16’s Henry IV.

Epic formally recruits participants for REMIX by visiting every ELA class at the partner schools before auditions and interviews.  Each school’s faculty also informally identifies students to work with REMIX, recruiting when they see students they think should be involved.  “I try to pull kids in if I know them,” explains Erin, “or I  observe behavior that suggests that REMIX would be a good fit.”  The application and selection of student participants occurs in the first semester of the year, so Erin and other faculty don’t have much chance to get to know new students vey well.

Many of the students are failing classes or exhibiting discipline problems.  According to Friedman, however, “As participants learn to master Shakespeare’s challenging text, their school attendance and grades improve, and their confidence rises.”  A report earlier this year on the Daily Beast, the on-line journal of reporting and opinion, says that through Shakespeare REMIX, Epic has “greatly impacted their students’ academic performance and empowered a new generation of artist-activists.”  Friedman adds, “On average, 95 percent of Shakespeare REMIX participants finish high school, and 90 percent of graduates go to college.”  In the 2015-16 school year, Epic reports, “92 percent of Remix seniors applied to at least eight colleges and received acceptances to at least four.”  (In the schools where Epic works, the average for college attendance is 50%.  Epic NEXT, the company’s three-year mentoring program, maintains a college-attendance rate of 100%, the theater reports.) 

All students are welcome, but they must fill out a simple application and then, depending on whether their interest is in onstage or backstage work, do an audition or interview.  Every student who expresses an interest in the program may participate; the average ensemble is about two dozen.  There’s no limit to the size of the ensemble “as long as everyone involved has a task and feels useful and excited,” explains Erin.  She declared, “We want more rather than less,” and repeaters are common.  Most REMIX participants do at least two projects during their time at the partner school.  During the workshop period, Shakespearean and student writing is read and performed until it becomes familiar, and students all have a chance to act bits of the play in front of the ensemble.  Specific casting doesn’t occur until the play has been remixed, however, typically well into the rehearsal process. 

The project’s director selects the play on which each REMIX session will work (though Erin says that she provides input—as I imagine the faculty at the other partner schools do as well—and now, as the program has become part of the school’s milieu, the students also make requests). The texts students start with are pre-cut by the director—though, of course, changes are made as the project develops.  Typically, the REMIX project is based on a single Shakespeare play; the histories have been the only exceptions at Chelsea (Henry 6 incorporated all parts of Henry VI and Richard III; Henry 4 used Henry IV, parts 1 and 2).  The director pre-cuts the texts with which students start; in the case of the histories, for example, the initial text the students see could be a small bit of one play and the majority of another. 

According to Erin, the choice of play affects the way a process unfolds.  “The only really consistent effect that I see in the process,” says Erin, “is that some plays inspire characters to be created, while others inspire characters already in existence to be further fleshed out.”  The development process, says Erin,  has evolved and changed over the years, but the overall arc of the process is pretty much the same from project to project.

While the prime goal of Epic’s REMIX program isn’t  to train theater artists, NYTR’s Nicholas Job remarked that “Shakespeare newcomer Brianna Del Rio does a nice job with her portrayal of the ruthless Iago.  I suspect we’ll be seeing more of her and her fellow Remixers in the future on the New York stage . . . .”  Working closely with teaching artists (defined by Marit Ulvund as “a professional artist working in and through the arts in an educational or community setting” in her essay “In the age of the teaching artist: What teaching artists are and do”) has had an aspirational impact on some students and, over the years now, REMIX has fielded National Champions and New York City runners-up in the English Speaking Union’s National Shakespeare Competition.  

[I was able to get some input for this article from Erin Woodward but her work schedule precluded much follow-up.  Associate Artistic Director James Wallert, a founder of the Epic Theatre Ensemble, was willing to submit to an interview, but ultimately his schedule also made him unavailable.  The result has been that I’ve composed this article based mostly on secondary-source research, from which I was unable to answer all my questions.  Nonetheless, I believe the REMIX program is well worth covering on Rick On Theater and so I have gone ahead with posting this profile even in its incomplete state. 

[Epic’s office and mailing address is 55 West 39th Street, Suite 302, New York, New York 10018; e-mail:  epic@epictheatreensemble.org  phone: 212-239-1770.]

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