Romeo and Juliet is required reading for all ninth graders in Memphis. But, with the assistance of the Tennessee Shakespeare Company (TSC), some Memphis area freshmen are experiencing the story in a much more dramatic way.
Cue the Romeo and Juliet Project, directed by TSC Education Director Stephanie Shine. The Project brings eight professional actor teachers into local ninth grade Language Arts classrooms where students are guided through an in-depth first exposure to Shakespeare. Each resident actor visits classrooms for a total of three sessions. A fourth session culminates with a performance of the play by the same resident actors.
A modernized version of Romeo and Juliet is performed at Kingsbury High school
In addition to sparking students interest in reading or viewing other works by Shakespeare, the goal of the program is to create positive social change while actively engaging the students in the classical literature found in their language arts curriculum.
Joey Shaw, resident actor and teaching artist, wants students to connect to the characters, but also the environment in which the characters live, “[With the students] we are looking for how these things occur, not just what happens, but how and why. We get them up on their feet, getting them familiar with the idea of Verona as a rage filled city. We then acquaint them with the characters. It really hits them in the second and third sessions when they have met these characters—they have identified with them. Then, suddenly one dies. That resonates with the students.”
For those who haven’t read or seen the play since ninth grade themselves, a brief recap: in the city of fair Verona, two feuding families are involved in increasing violence. The deaths of the titular young, star-crossed lovers are all that can reconcile the dispute. The closing line, “For never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo,” perhaps redundantly reiterates that this is indeed a tragedy.
The characters in the play face several issues that are all too familiar to Memphis youth: armed violence, peer pressure, and decision-making in the absence of adult role models.
Shine is credited with the concept and creation of the project. Four years ago sitting in a summit called by Mayor A C Wharton, she was among the local artists who were challenged with the same question. “We were asked what can you do to help me with the problem of teen violence?” Shine recalls.
Inspired by her own personal tragedy, Shine answered this call to action. “My teenage children, when they were in school, had friends die because of gun violence. And yet still, the after effect of that—what it did to my children, what it did to the whole community—was very moving to me.” Shine saw an easy connection between the need for social change and the goal of the TSC to perform for area schools.
Students act out the play, guided by professional actors.
“A play is not meant to stay on a printed page. It’s meant to live and breathe and have actors and audience. And that’s the only way it really comes to life,” adds Shine. She likens it to teaching Mozart to children. “You wouldn’t ask someone to appreciate or to play Mozart, and then hand someone a piece of sheet music. You wouldn’t do that to a ninth grade freshman.” The Romeo and Juliet Project brings the material alive, while teaching artists are subtly able to address social issues.
Now one of the Mayor’s success stories, the Tennessee Shakespeare Company kicks off its fourth year of the nationally recognized project. Through the project, TSC was brought to over 342 classrooms since its inception, touching the lives of at least 4,360 students in the Memphis area.
And those children were served without any cost to their or the host schools. The production of Romeo and Juliet and The Romeo and Juliet Project are part of Shakespeare in American Communities, a national program of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest. Additional funding is provided by individual contributions to TSC's Barbara B. Apperson Angel Fund. Shine is proud that the program is provided free of charge to participating schools and students.
"Mayor A C Wharton challenged us to discover a way for the arts to activate positive social change while simultaneously heightening academic success," says TSC founder and producing artistic director Dan McCleary. "That was four years ago. We have now created an interactive, in-classroom curriculum that is meeting both challenges successfully, gaining both student and teacher momentum in county-wide schools, and hopefully will become a model for replication around the United States. Romeo and Juliet speaks directly to our children's daily decision-making in an environment where armed violence, truancy, homelessness, high school drop-out rates, and poverty are at some of the highest levels in the country. The Romeo and Juliet Project is changing young lives for the better. We are very proud of this, and hopeful."
Interested Memphis area high schools are encouraged to visit the TSC website for more information about scheduling for next year.