American Players Theatre Brings Shakespeare to a New Generation (Spring Green, WI)

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Two actors, male and female, are shown. The woman points to something in the distance and the man, on her right, follows her gesture with his gaze.

American Players Theatre's production of Twelfth Night. Photo by Zane Williams.

Part of the NEA’s Shakespeare in American Communities initiative, Shakespeare for a New Generation (SNG) targets middle and high school students, introducing young people to the power of live theater and the masterpieces of William Shakespeare. Managed by Arts Midwest, the program already has benefited more than one million students and their teachers with live performances and educational activities. This past April, NEA announced SNG grants to 40 organizations for the 2008-09 school year, including American Players Theatre.

Located in Spring Green, Wisconsin, American Players Theatre has received a number of Shakespeare in American Communities grants since the program’s inception, bringing as many as 16,000 students each year to its home theater and reaching another 7,500 students through a touring program. David Frank, producing artistic director for American Players Theatre, spoke with the NEA about its experience with the Shakespeare program.

NEA: Congratulations on receiving your fifth Shakespeare in American Communities grant from the NEA. What are your plans for 2008-09?

David Frank: How to get [our education programming] even closer to our core mission is something that is a particular interest to us. But it will continue to be a mix, as it always has been, of large numbers of students attending performances, and supplementing those groups attending the performances with workshops that are specific to the material.

And then also another set of workshops that include sustained residencies where it’s not show-specific. . . but is more designed to share our feelings about language, to make Shakespeare accessible in a more general way. I’m always nervous about the term accessible because it implies sugar-coating. Our particular interest is in communicating our excitement with language, which I think is always the elemental aspect of Shakespeare, and to make that excitement with language less academic and closer to typical students.

NEA: What kinds of activities make up the workshops?

David Frank: An ongoing interest for us is how we can make something like dramatic poetry germane, and immediate, and fresh, and compelling, and useful. To try to connect what every child knows when they’re a youngster--that words are interesting, rhyme is interesting, rhythm is interesting; that words are capable of conveying something much deeper than their literal quantifiable meaning, and that’s a critical part of Shakespeare. I would say that games play a very important part of it, but there is an element also of illustration, and there is a very important element of getting the students themselves to participate.

NEA: What’s the reaction of the students to the performance and workshops?

David Frank: You know, when they’re going well, and I think they almost always do, there is a measurable, visual excitement. [What seems] quite irrelevant to them can be immediately accessible, and the power and the potency of words I think becomes much more evident. And you get some very enthusiastic evaluations from teachers. And you can feel--when the class is really working well--you can feel the frisson in the classroom. I suppose you judge those reactions both from the immediate reaction and then also from rather more formal evaluation procedures that we have.

NEA: Do you find that families with students who have participated in your program are then more likely to visit your theater?

David Frank: We hear over and over and over again how, for someone who now attends our audience regularly, the first time they were ever here was part of a high school group. Now, we don’t have enough history in those workshops yet, but we typically have people who came when they were 15 and now suddenly are coming back when they’re 25. And while we have been doing workshops for a while, they’ve taken such a huge step forward since we’ve had support from the NEA. And education--we have identified that as our core mission. So I would be very surprised if the workshops in the schools don’t prove to be an extraordinarily good long term marketing tool.

NEA: What plays will be part of your 2008-2009 program?

David Frank: For ‘08 we know what the plays are, which are A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Henry IV: The Making of a King, which is Henry IV: Part One mostly with a bit of Henry IV: Part Two worked in--a typical mixture. So those will be the two Shakespearian productions that a very large number of high school students will see, and then we’ll go out to do workshops. We have toured in the past, and we will tour again in the future, probably. We’re actually in the course of building a small indoor space that we will open next summer. And it makes more sense to us to tour productions that will be designed for that smaller indoor space, that then we can go out and play in large range of venues across the state and neighboring states rather than taking a huge main stage production, where it only makes economic sense if you have 1,500 seats and 2,000 seats and you have to have buses and you have to have trucks and you have to have sets.

NEA: What has being a part of the NEA’s Shakespeare for a New Generation initiative meant to American Players Theatre?

David Frank: It means that education and us sharing our enthusiasm for these plays through broad and effective outreach is possible. And without it those programs become on the fringe. Relative to the overall budget, it doesn’t take a huge amount to prime that pump so the whole thing takes off. And without [the additional funding] you suddenly find that you’re robbing substantial resources from the main stage, and it’s hard to justify because without the main stage you don’t have anything. So it [helps make] education a vital and effective part of what we do.