Shakespeare’s Modern Lessons For New York Schoolkids
Epic Theatre goes into schools to teach students how to perform Shakespeare—and their interpretations of power and abuse are rooted in the modern day.
It’s closing in on 11 p.m. and the evening’s tech rehearsal for Epic Theatre Ensemble’s production of The Taming of the Shrew has long since ended.
But director and co-founder Melissa Friedman is still seated in the front row of the National Black Theater’s uptown space working with one of her student-actors, Abel Garcia.
They’re staying up late because Garcia is competing in the New York finals of this year’s National Shakespeare Competition, where he’ll perform a prepared monologue and sonnet and--in what would be a daunting proposition for a seasoned pro—given 10 to 15 minutes to read, analyze, and then perform a cold read of an unseen, brand new monologue.
After a day spent wrangling the massive ensemble of 30 actors and five additional crew members running lights, sound, projections, props and wardrobe, Friedman’s face betrays a certain weariness.
But she’s also beaming, reassuring Garcia that the scant amount of time he’ll be given to break down a new piece of text should suffice as long as he remembers to relax, have fun with it, and most importantly, to speak directly to the audience.
A week later, Garcia would go on to win—one of three Epic students competing in the finals—and will be heading to the national finals at Lincoln Center.
It marks the third time in the last four years that an Epic alumnus has won the NYC branch, all three of whom are first-generation Americans attending the same under-resourced, non-screened public high school in Harlem.
But it’s not just the high-profile successes that set Epic apart from other youth arts education programs.
Since 2004, in schools spanning the length of New York City, Epic has not just been molding great actors; they’ve greatly impacted their students’ academic performance and empowered a new generation of artist-activists.
Their production of Taming of the Shrew is a part of Shakespeare Remix, Epic’s award-winning program in which, over the course of three months, 170 students at their three partner schools “fully debate the social and political questions of the play, decode the meaning of Shakespeare’s text, and weave their own writing into the fabric of the script,” culminating in a professional production of an entirely new piece of theater.
Unsurprisingly, given the literal torture and abuse that Kate receives at Petruchio’s hands, Friedman’s students chose to write new scenes focusing on the play’s subjugation of women.
Shakespeare’s text is reframed as a television show performed for the pleasure of Christopher Sly, a cruel despot ruling over a rigidly patriarchal society where women can’t vote and are forced into arranged marriages.
According to Friedman, when it comes to the social and political messages in the newly crafted play, it’s originating from the students and the students alone.
“They want to fight against this objectification that they experience,” she said. “They feel a lot of pressure that getting a man in your life for having a romance or having a marriage or whatever is the ultimate achievement and they sense that it's not the way that men are taught.”
And so, following the brutal scene in which Petruchio begins depriving Kate of food and sleep, an offstage stage manager calls cut, and the “actors” talk about the emotional toll of performing the at-times comically framed violence and verbal abuse.
Willington Vuelto, who, along with Garcia, plays Petruchio and also made it all the way to the 2015 finals of the National Shakespeare Competition, drops Petruchio’s braggadocio entirely and slumps in his chair to reveal his character’s backstory, unspooling a grim familial history littered with repeated beatings by an abusive father and escalating acts of domestic violence, ultimately resulting in his mother’s murder.
Watching Vuelto and Garcia perform, even during the enervating, stop-and-start slog of a tech rehearsal, is thrilling.
It’s not just the ease and comfort that they have with Shakespeare’s verse; there’s a dancerly quality to their acting. They’ve crafted a physical score that brings the text to life and results in a dazzling stage presence. More to the point, even in brutal scenes like this, they’re both clearly having gobs of fun.
For Vuelto, the value of training with Epic goes far beyond the ways in which he has been able to refine his skills as an actor. “Epic pushes us to be citizen artists rather than just artists—artists that have something to say about their country, their community,” he said.
“I walked into Epic a completely different person. I was very shy. I had trouble even looking people in the eyes. Epic helped me bring out the person that you see today. It helped me bring out my inner confidence ... It’s really incredible. It’s a blessing.”
It’s a sentiment that I’ll hear time and time again over the course of spending two days with Epic’s young theater artists.
Raymond Sanchez, a junior at the Bronx High School for Writing and Communication Arts, said, “This is the best thing that has ever happened to me.” Brandon Channel, also a junior, quietly discussed his issues with depression and ADHD, intermittently apologizing for his difficulty expressing himself.
“I didn’t know who I was as a person,” he said. “I’ve been bullied. I’ve gone through most of the stuff a normal teenager might have gone through. It’s gotten really, really bad, but Epic has helped me find myself.”
Xavier Pacheco, the third Epic student to reach the national finals and who is in his freshman year at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, said that “the most important thing I took away from the program was political awareness.”
“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.”
But Epic is not just training a new generation of activist/actors; they’re heavily invested in college preparation.
According to information provided by Epic, “over 90% of REMIX participants attend college (against less than 50% in their demographic).”
Graduates of the Epic NEXT program—a rigorous three-year mentorship pairing professional artists with selected students beginning in a summer lab and extending throughout the school year—have a 100 percent college attendance and retention rate.
SAT and ACT prep are intertwined into Epic’s core curriculum, they bring “the average NEXT student on 7 overnight college field trips, and their Mentors guide them through the application and financial aid process.”
Additionally, “of the $786,000 NEXT graduates would pay annually in tuition, room, and board at their colleges, over $715,000 is handled by scholarships Epic helped them earn through auditions, interviews, and direct interventions.”
It’s an amazing success story, especially considering that for their three core partner schools, “over 95% of the overall student population is eligible for the free lunch program and at two of the schools 100% of students are eligible,” and “approximately 80% of families use some form of public assistance.”
Vuelto and Garcia attend the Urban Assembly School for the Performing Arts, an institution that lands in the nearly one-fourth of public schools across New York City in which more than 90 percent of students aren’t adequately prepared to go to college, according to a 2014 report by the education advocacy group, Families for Excellent Schools.
They’re both performing in Epic NEXT’s production of their original play, 10467, an examination of the unconstitutional inequalities that are hard-wired into the New York City School system. That may scan as somewhat dry, un-dramatic source material, but it’s anything but.
For example, as part of their text-generating process, they took the court ruling that said that New York City public school students are only constitutionally guaranteed "minimally adequate” everything—physical facilities and classrooms, desks, chairs, pencils, “reasonably current textbooks,” and even teaching itself of “reasonably up-to-date basic curricula” by “sufficient personnel” that is “adequately trained.”
Hence the creation of “The Minimally Adequate Players,” that take the stage to tepidly recite minimally adequate poems like “How now, brown cow,” or sing minimally adequate songs. It’s a savage satire of the Kafka-esque bureaucracy of public education.
Vuelto plays Tyrone in 10467 and the things he learned developing the piece were an eye-opener, like the ancient joke about a young fish not realizing that the wet stuff it’s swimming in is called water.
“Throughout that process we just found out all these things about the rights that have been taken from the inner-city youth kids, that we're not getting the proper funding that we need in order to run a successful school,” he said.
“I walk down my halls every day now, and I just see it now. I see it. Before then, I saw it, but I was just like, that’s normal. I took that as just something that happens. ‘Oh, yeah, we have one working printer. That’s just normal. Oh, we don’t have enough iPads. We don’t have enough textbooks, or the textbooks are four years old. That’s normal.’ Now I realize that's unconstitutional, according to the state standards.”
Friedman explained that that response is fairly common. “One of our students in our program saw 10467,” she said. “And in the post-show discussion she started to cry, and she said, ‘I didn’t know that I could expect better of my school. I didn’t know and now I know and I’ll never be the same.’”
Ron Russell, Epic’s co-founder and creative director, is the director of 10467.
On Friday, he was at the Bronx High School for Writing and Communication Arts off Gun Hill Road in the Bronx, gamely trying to stage the final 13 pages of their remixed Macbeth even though he’s missing 18 kids out of a cast of 55, including his lead actor.
Halfway through rehearsal, he learned that the actor had left school because he needed stitches. One of Russell’s students jokingly wondered if he’d snitched.
As part of their reimagining of the text, the play is set in South America, circa 1898 with a military junta in charge and a number of potential successors to Macbeth’s throne, including a very Trumpian businessman named Paul.
Russell pleads with the actor to amp up his levels of obnoxiousness, though he tells me that the idea now scans as “possibly less funny than it seemed five months ago when they [the students] wrote it.“
At one point, Russell cuts through the chaotic, buzzing, ambient noise present in the oversized, multi-use auditorium, with non-Epic students and security guards alike ambling around in the back, by jumping on stage to demonstrate the energy he needs from the actors playing the Murderers, spreading his arms akimbo, his eyes nearly bursting from their sockets, he screams, “shut the fuck up!”
Unsurprisingly, his cuss-word inflected direction is met with a smattering of giggles. Still, it works. (Full disclosure: I performed in a 1998 production of Macbeth co-directed by Ron Russell.)
Regarding the development of 10467, Russell explains that they partnered with the Campaign for Educational Equity, “a nonprofit started by a lawyer named Michael Rebell, who famously led the CFE v. the State of New York case that ‘minimally adequate’ emerged from, which argued that ‘New York City schools, and other schools across the state, were not giving sufficient funding to actually operate with anything bordering on what fit the state constitution.’”
In the course of their numerous interviews, one that a student conducted with a high-ranking New York state official greatly unnerved Russell and his actor-writers, such that it impacted both the structure and stylistic tone of the play.
“We thought the governor’s office would send in someone to appease us,” he said. “To say, ‘We obviously want to protect your constitutional rights. We care about you. You’re children. You’re the future.’”
That didn’t happen. Instead, the official looked bored and distracted, and dismissed the students’ lived experiences.
“It was like being patronized by a lunatic, is the thing that really drove them crazy,” Russell said. “She kept going back to talking about how money was really tight because of infrastructure. It was very hard for the young people because they were talking about their very personal fears. They were very open with her about what it felt to go to a school that wasn’t equipped to teach them.
“Her reaction was, ‘Right, you should take that up with the mayor, because the state really has to worry about roads.’ She was trying to give them a practical example, but it came off as patronizing the hell out of them.”
Taking their inspiration from David Ives’s play, Sure Thing, one of Russell’s students wrote a two-person scene in which a buzzer goes off if either party ends up accidentally saying anything of substance or venturing near the truth.
“If Vanessa landed a good point about constitutional rights, the buzzer would sound and she’d have to go back and dumb-down her question,” Russell explained. “By the end of it, what you get is this very vanilla version of an interview, where really nothing is being said and no progress is being made.”
More than anything, what Russell hopes the piece conveys is that “everyone is waiting for someone else to speak up,” he said. “It’s not so much the blame game; it’s more the accountability game ... So the kids are put in the position where you have a lot of adults who are either being facile—sometimes cynical—or honestly they just don’t know how to make their voices heard. The point of the piece is ultimately to say to the audience, ‘You have to fix this. We can’t. You have to.’”
“I want to not only show the problem but put them metaphorically in the driver’s seat and say, ‘You can fix this,’” he said. “I want the audience personally to feel like, ‘Yes, there’s a problem. How do we fix it?”