Shakespeare for the Young in Indianapolis
The middle of winter and you're in Indianapolis. You are indoors with a crowd of people and it is not a basketball game. This week features a wide array of artists and companies making work in the heartland. This series on Indianapolis, Indiana is curated by Courtney Sale, the Associate Artistic Director for Indiana Repertory Theatre.
When we do a talk back after our public performances of a Shakespearean play, there's a particular question that frequently comes up. This one question does a fair job of identifying the mission of EclecticPond Theatre Company (ETC). It's also the reason I signed on with the company shortly after it was formed in 2010. Invariably, this question comes from a well-meaning adult, and it always manages to surprise me that it has been asked again.
“Do you really think that students can actually relate to anything in this play?”
The question is legitimate. For example, submerging yourself into Romeo & Juliet’s world of arranged teen marriages and street dueling can be challenging. The language is beautiful but intimidating to many. The story is old. The guy who wrote it is dead, long dead.
At the same time, is it really all that difficult to imagine our youth relating to two characters that do the exact opposite of what their parents want them to do? Or going absolutely crazy over their latest crush? Based on my own neighborhood, I sadly know it’s way too easy for many of them to relate to street violence. Welcome to Verona! These kids are already living in their own version of it.
But okay, Romeo and Juliet is easy. Let’s try something else:
What about Julius Caesar? Kids know about loyalty and betrayal.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Again the theme of filial disobedience, but also the desire to just run away from it all.
Hamlet? Have you meet a young person who hasn’t at least once felt wronged by a family member in some way?
Macbeth? Ever try talking a teen out of their greatest ambition?
These texts are relevant to everyone, because they excel at being human. These characters represent the very best and the very worst of humanity; they act like—wait for it —people! So, my question is who wouldn’t relate?
These texts are relevant to everyone, because they excel at being human. These characters represent the very best and the very worst of humanity; they act like—wait for it —people!
This is where EclecticPond comes in. ETC’s vision (and I’m totally stealing the exact wording—you can find the whole thing on the website—because it was written by people smarter than I am) is:
“…to become one of the leading companies producing inventive and exciting adaptations of Shakespeare and other playwrights, enabling the works to become relevant and appealing to a new generation of audiences. Through these adaptations, both modern and classical, and a program of new writing, we aim to invigorate personal interest in theatre for young and old alike.”
Fairly lofty goal for a company which is just in its third season, right? Sure. But already we’re hearing a lot of folks saying things like, “You know, I’ve never liked Shakespeare—still don’t. But I liked your show.” We say thanks about a million times, smiling because the show they liked was Shakespeare. And that’s a good start. Sure, we’re young, but ETC is already a member of the Shakespeare Theatre Association. Sure, we’re new in town, but our show at the IndyFringe festival this year was in the top ten for ticket sales. Yes, I like to think this all says nice things about the work we’re doing, but I think it says even more about the need for this kind of accessible theater. ETC seeks to meet this need within the community, a need to see classic characters performed as if they were our neighbors, friends, family, and ourselves, without ever compromising the integrity of the original language. We’re working hard to put it out there. We have public and student performances at our home in Irvington. Already we've been touring shows at schools, parks, and community centers. We facilitate affordable workshops, develop free educational materials, and this year, for the first time, ETC is producing A Midsummer Night's Dream with a cast of entirely 8 to 16-year-olds as part of our Young Shakespeareans Project. But it is Indianapolis that has been soaking it in, for which we’re intensely grateful and excited.
Personally, I subscribe to ETC’s vision, because the best part of seeing theater live, in my humble opinion, is connecting with someone else’s life experiences, no matter how fictitious—flexing our empathy muscles through imagination and expression. And the best part of seeing Shakespeare, or any classics, performed live is the experience of connecting with people that lived hundreds, even thousands, of years ago, and realizing that, emotionally, we really aren’t all that different. And beyond that, there’s something even more incredible. When we realize everyone can relate to these texts, all of a sudden it becomes easier to connect with each other today, in real life, here and now. If an adult can see where Shakespeare intersects not only with his/her own life but also with someone younger than themselves (and vice versa), then a whole new world opens where we stop moaning about and throwing up our hands at how inexplicable one generation is to another and begin to understand each other as fellow humans.
That’s pretty darn relevant. That’s pretty darn transformative. That’s ETC.