NEA Arts Magazine

The Bard Lives!

Shakespeare for a New Generation

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Joanna Mitchell and Jason Loughlin

Joanna Mitchell and Jason Loughlin in Georgia Shakespeare Festival's production of Macbeth. Photo by Stacey Colosa Lucas.

Five years after Shakespeare in American Communities debuted, theater companies and arts educators across the country are still giving this NEA National Initiative rave reviews. It all began in 2003, when six NEA-supported professional theater companies set out to perform the Bard's plays in all 50 states. That list has since grown to more than 60 companies who have performed before more than a million people on school campuses and military bases.

In summer 2004 -- under the umbrella of Shakespeare in American Communities -- the NEA launched Shakespeare for a New Generation, a program that brings the Bard to American schoolchildren who have limited access to the performing arts. Approximately 35 theater companies receive the $25,000 grants each fiscal year. Companies craft their grant proposals based on their local needs. Some theaters send out touring productions to rural areas, others bus students in free of charge, and a few combine school visits with trips to a theater.

Since Atlanta-based Georgia Shakespeare seeks to serve students in a four-state area, the theater invests its entire grant in sending a troupe of six actors to tour schools in rural Georgia, Tennessee, and the Carolinas. For education director Allen O'Reilly, theater doesn't get more fulfilling than presenting Macbeth to Native- American students at Cherokee High School in Canton, Georgia. The students watched, mesmerized, as the troupe of actors staged Macbeth with a simple set of fabric scrims and a live soundscape of eerie chanting. O'Reilly said, "From all reports, Macbeth was our bestreceived school tour yet. Kids love the combat and they love the supernatural elements."

In the spring of 2008, the theater plans to tour a traveling version of Romeo and Juliet set in New Orleans. O'Reilly suspects students in the South will relate to the teenage lovers whose families are divided by grief and strife.

Alabama Shakespeare Festival (ASF), one of the nation's top five Shakespeare theaters, in 2004 toured Macbeth to 13 U.S. military bases. ASF used its 2007 Shakespeare grant to offer 1,000 children both a trip to the theater and a pre-performance visit from two company actors. No campus was more grateful than Alma Bryant High School in Irvington, Alabama. Most of the students there are the children of Vietnamese immigrants who, prior to the hurricanes of 2005, made their living fishing on the Gulf Coast. Although the students are still learning English as their second language, they gamely read through scenes in Henry IV when the actors visited their school. A few weeks later, the students traveled four hours by bus to the festival grounds in Montgomery. They came wearing custom made tee-shirts emblazoned with the words, "The Bryant Bards."