How St. Louis’ Shakespeare in the Schools Teaches the Bard to Local Students

 In Culture, Interviews

The Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, or Shakespeare In The Park, began in 2002 as a professional-quality production of “Romeo and Juliet” in Forest Park, where visitors could watch the show for free during the summer. Audiences have continued to turn out in record numbers, which led the way for an outgrowth of programming, including Shakespeare In The Schools.

The organization gathers actors for a touring production of Shakespeare plays to be performed around St. Louis schools and the surroundings areas, spilling into parts of Illinois and rural Missouri. The touring productions include workshops, study materials and an engaging program that makes Shakespeare accessible to students. This year’s Shakespeare In The Schools touring production is a 50-minute adaptation of this year’s mainstage play, “Romeo and Juliet.”

As for how to make Shakespeare relevant to students, interim producing director Jennifer Wintzer says “Interestingly enough, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is one of the best shows for this. It’s about two young people who have hope in a community that is divided. They’re really leading the way, which is what we’re seeing now. So we find those ways to connect with contemporary culture.”

We spoke with actor Erika Denise Flowers-Roberts, a member Shakespeare In The Schools’ touring production, to gather further insight about the program and process.

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Jesse Muñoz and Erika Denise Flowers-Roberts, Photo courtesy of Shakespeare In The Schools.

Tell me about this program and how you got involved.
So there are three program areas of the Shakespeare Festival: Shakespeare In The Park, In The Streets and In The Schools. For Shakespeare In The Schools, we travel around the St. Louis area, rural Missouri and Illinois where we perform for the students and do Shakespeare-related workshops around language, identity and more. and a four-week-long residency in rural Missouri on writing. We go to about 50 schools per tour.

I got involved with this company because one of my classmates from college posted on Facebook page that the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival was holding auditions for the education tour. We have two shows we tour with every year: a Shakespeare play that’s been cut to 50 minutes and a play for elementary-school students. This year, we’ve been performing a play by resident playwright Nancy Bell, inspired by “A Comedy of Errors.” The kids love it.

When working with kids, how do you make this material, which was written 400 years ago, feel relevant to young people?
Shakespeare’s characters and the ideas he explores are so relevant to any time. Four hundred years later, we still have arguments with our family members, fall in love, lose people who are close to us and feel jealous. Those pieces are part of human nature, which will never go away. Shakespeare’s language explores that in such an imaginative, colorful and expressive way that it gives us the opportunity to explore those differences in human nature. What do we do when we lose someone? Or argue with our parents? Shakespeare gives the students opportunities to explore and identify what we can celebrate about each other.

Shakespeare’s plays were also written during a time when racism was even more self-evident in society than it is now. What do you make of how Shakespeare’s work handles the issue of race?
I think there are some instances in his plays where race is highlighted and can be interpreted negatively, depending on how the production chooses to portray it. But something that’s great about Shakespeare is that the character’s race isn’t always stated. So we can have a play, like we have in the touring show, where Lady Capulet is a Caucasian female, Mercutio is an African-American male, Juliet is an African-American female and Romeo is a Latino male—and all of that is ok. You can be very dynamic and eclectic with your casting choices. So having a Latino Romeo, for example, says, “It doesn’t matter what your nationality is. You’re important, you’re valued, and you can be Romeo just like a white male can be Romeo.”

The education system is a real marker of the disparities between the quality of schools, based on whether their districts have financial resources or not. Have you seen that in your work?
We’ve definitely seen schools of all kinds during the tour. We’ll go to private schools that are very well-funded, where students have a lot of opportunities and they’ve already read Shakespeare, just because they’re well-funded. We have also seen schools where they don’t have those same opportunities. But theatre and Shakespeare are very equalizing. The kids are wonderful, and they want to learn regardless of how much money their parents make or the side of town they live on.

You grew up in Jefferson City, Missouri. Are the disparities similar to what they are in St. Louis?
Yes, it is similar in Jefferson City. The public-school district tries its best—it really does. But there is a lack of funding, and there also are a lot of students who come from lower socioe-conomic standings. Many students qualify for free and reduced lunch, and by contrast there are there are some schools that are very affluent. It’s a heartbreaking thing about the education system, that it’s one of the places where people get marginalized. But theater is a place where healing can take place.

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Michael James Reed and Erika Denise Flowers-Roberts, Photo courtesy of Shakespeare In The Schools.

Tell me about how the workshops function, like the Identity and Difference workshop, for example.
First during the character workshops, we ask students to identify the character traits that are most meaningful to them. That could be things like people who are fair, trustworthy, caring, respectful, etc. We ask them to look at characteristics like that and identify which are the most meaningful to them. Some might say trustworthiness, for example—there are no wrong answers.

We also ask the students whether they agree with statements or concepts relevant to the play, like “I believe in love at first sight.” They can see where they may agree or disagree, and discover that there’s no one way to be. We can all be different, and that’s ok.

We also look at the moments of tragedy from “Romeo and Juliet,” like when Romeo kills Tybalt, or how Juliet’s mother forcing her to marry. Once they identify the big moments that lead to each tragedy, they can see what it looks like in context: like how Romeo’s friend died at the hands of Tybalt, for example. We ask the students more probing questions, like “If one of these characters made a different choice, could this have made for a better ending?” Or, “Rather than forcing Juliet into a marriage she didn’t want, how could her mother have been more caring and compassionate? We ask them these reflective questions and explore some answers, like “How can we get along when we don’t see eye-to-eye on everything?”

How did you decide to devote your life to theatre? Did you grow up in a creative family?
My mother and grandparents were educators. I always had a great respect for them—my mother got me into theater when I was very young, and I grew up loving theater and school, for the most part. But in middle school, I was bullied a lot and I became very shy. But I felt confident when performing in plays, like I was worth something. I felt proud of who I was. My teachers would say, “Erika, you say barely five words in class, but when you get up there—I didn’t even know what your voice sounded like.”

When I got to college, I decided to go into theater education, because I wanted to give students the opportunity to express themselves, feel proud of themselves, make mistakes and not feel like it’s the end of the world. You just keep going. Life keeps going. During a live play, no one will know you messed up as long as you keep going. Those are great things to learn at an early age. Students also have the opportunity to put stories into monologues, and they often share about challenging topics. It’s a safe environment for students to do that. It gives them a real avenue to work out their frustrations. I love the company and the work they do. I feel honored to be a part of it.

Cover image courtesy of Nathan Dumlao.

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