When Luther Burbank High School teacher Dana Dusbiber wrote an essay last month on why she doesn’t teach Shakespeare, she expected small ripples of response. Instead, she sparked a tsunami of emotions ranging from fury to fervent support.
At Burbank High School, 96 percent of students are minorities, and Dusbiber argued in the Washington Post that Shakespeare isn’t as relevant to her students as acclaimed authors from nonwhite backgrounds.
But as Shakespeare festival season hits its stride in Sacramento and across the country, theater veterans and educators say creative interpretations can make the Bard’s works appealing for modern audiences of any background.
“Within certain groups, people are thinking of Shakespeare as this lofty writer with beautiful words meant to be said a certain way,” said Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) resident dramaturg Lydia Garcia. “We don’t have only one way of presenting Shakespeare’s plays.”
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Traditional Shakespearean plays were performed by actors dressed in garb from the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. Some directors still use that clothing style, while others try to use more modern clothing that conveys the same message or social standing the traditional garments were intended to, Garcia said.
In a previous OSF production of “The Comedy of Errors,” director Kent Gash changed the names of Roman cities Ephesus and Syracuse to New Orleans and Harlem, respectively, and cast mostly black actors. The themes and language remained the same from Shakespeare’s original, but updating the cities’ names helped the audience better understand characters’ backgrounds, Garcia said.
When Kate Buckley directed “Much Ado About Nothing” at OSF in 2009, she stuck with Shakespeare’s setting of Sicily but bumped the time up to 1945, when Italian men were returning from World War II. Other OSF Shakespeare productions have been set in the 1970s or used more modern body language and music. Some directors will use any trick to convey ideas such as social status and setting to the audience, Garcia said.
The Sacramento Shakespeare Festival this summer has gone so traditional with its “Romeo and Juliet” production that it is using an all-male cast. That’s how it was done in Shakespeare’s time, when women were banned from the stage, but the approach is obviously unconventional today.
The Sacramento festival, however, has an all-female cast for “As You Like It,” which is set in Prohibition-era Atlantic City. Both plays run through early August at the William A. Carroll Amphitheatre in Land Park.
At Hiram Johnson High School in Sacramento, 16-year-old Bianca Solis is required to read Shakespeare in her English classes, though she prefers modern books such as those in the “Percy Jackson” series in her spare time. Solis, who is entering her junior year, has read “Romeo and Juliet” and “Julius Caesar” for class.
Solis said she has to run some of Shakespeare’s words through a quick Google search. Still, she said overall ideas of love and betrayal are just as present in today’s world as they were in the past.
“I see how kids fall in love crazy and think they’re gonna get married and all that crazy stuff,” Solis said. “And Caesar teaches you, like, no matter what you can’t really trust someone … and not to let your arrogance get in the way.”
Newly hired Roseville High School drama and English teacher Ashley White is completing the final days of UC Davis’ Globe Education Academy in partnership with the Globe Theatre in London. White said she had worked on ways to have students act out the plays, instead of reading them like ordinary books.
“When I was a student, it was sitting at a desk with a textbook and reading it out loud and translating every single line,” White said. “Shakespeare never designed (his work) to be sat at a desk and read. It’s designed to be fun, and that’s kind of what I want to bring back to my class.”
One strategy White picked up in London was reading introductory passages out loud as a class before asking students to dive into the texts on their own. Acting out longer plays such as “Hamlet” in their entirety might not be possible given the breadth of material covered in high school English classes, but short segments can hook students and make them more interested in the story.
The Globe Education Academy selects 12 middle and high school teachers from the Sacramento area every year. The teachers bring students to spring workshops at UC Davis, then fly to London for an immersive program at the world-renowned theater.
After returning to California, teachers apply their newly acquired knowledge in their respective classrooms, then meet up again over Labor Day weekend at the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center to discuss ideas for a performance called “Shakespeare Works When Shakespeare Plays.”
Patrick Spottiswoode, director of education at the Globe Theatre, said Dusbiber would be welcome to attend the $375 Mondavi Center event for free despite – or because of – her vocal opposition to teaching Shakespeare at Burbank. Dusbiber said she would be open to it.
“We want to invite her as a guest so she can check out some practical activities and get over her ‘Shakes-fear,’ as we like to call it,” Spottiswoode said. “Shakespeare is for all and anybody.”