Event: A Case for Youth Theater–Chicago Youth Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Event Date: December 10

Time: 1:00 pmVersion 3

Location: The Arts Club of Chicago, 201 E. Ontario St.

[interview by Programs Manager Jenna Lyle]

What does it mean to be a young person engaging in theater today?

To whom does theater or spoken word give a voice?

What role does on-stage performance play in contemporary society?

These are a few of the questions I posed to participants involved in Chicago Youth Shakespeare‘s (CYS) upcoming production of Hamlet, and their answers confirmed my suspicions about the way high school-aged artists approach creative work. They understand their relevance to the present moment and take seriously the task of challenging expectations—whether those expectations apply to youth in general or to artists. They think about revolution. And they possess a level of emotional awareness and understanding that I’ve seldom seen in the sagest of my contemporaries. Theirs is an important conversation to amplify, and we at The Arts Club couldn’t be more excited to give that conversation a platform this weekend.

On Saturday, December 10, at 1pm, CYS presents excerpts and discussion focused on their upcoming production, which is a collaboration with teaching artists and student poets from SennArts High School and Louder Than a Bomb.

Three veterans in the field, Lawrence Grimm (Chicago Shakespeare Theater, A Red Orchid Theater, Steppenwolf), Joel Ewing (SennArts, The Yard) and Jess McLeod (Chicago director and teacher with Young Chicago Authors), join CYS Founding Artistic Director Manon Spadaro and students to lead a conversation about youth agency, empowerment, and honoring the authenticity of the youth voice in contemporary progressive theater.

Student actors from CYS will present select scenes and monologues from their abridged cutting of Hamlet, juxtaposed with spoken word poems written especially for this production and performed by student poet collaborators.

Read on to learn more about this team’s process, practice, and inspiration.

What was your first experience in the theater? How did that influence your perception of and interaction with theater following that first experience?

  • My first experience in theatre ever was in the 1st grade. We did a school play about planets and I played a nimbus cloud. I kinda fell in love then and there; from then on I did anything theatre at my school, plays, musicals, all of it. I have forever looked at it as another way of expression, a way to feel free in my craft. [Victor Musoni, Student Poet, Senn Arts High School]
  • From the 4th grade play about grammar to doing Richard III for a school assembly as a Freshman to playing John Proctor in THE CRUCIBLE as a Senior – each was a progressive journey into complexity and dimension and narrative. The more I got the more I wanted. The fact that one could learn about life and history in the midst of having cathartic experiences as an actor playing a character and that these experiences might teach you more about who you are? There was nothing to say no to. I was hooked. [Lawrence Grimm, Actor and Teaching Artist]

 What role does spoken word play in your life? As a performer, as a student, as a creative?

  • Spoken word and theatre give me confidence in everyday life. The presence I have to learn to command on stage is presence I can now command in real life. [Caelan Reeves, CYS Student]
  • Spoken word has only heightened my awareness of the people and experiences around me. It allowed me to build empathy with the most villainous or underrepresented or misunderstood or overlooked before I was fully aware of the power of empathy. Growing up on the south side of Chicago, in Englewood, in a single parent home, I understood very early on that there was a narrative written out for me. My person was an expectation. A mold that neither I, nor the people around me, would…fit into was cast upon us. I wanted desperately to present that counter-narrative to the masses (even if the masses was only myself, in an attempt at reassurance), and spoken word gave me agency. Spoken word invites “the other” to look not only at you but with you; encourages your audience to be with you at a point in time, leveling the playing field and existing as one for at least 3 minutes. To me there’s nothing more beautiful than human relation, seeing as we spend so much time differentiating with no intent to celebrate. [Ireon Roach, Student Poet, Senn Arts High School]

What does theater mean to you?

  • a safe space for shared discovery. [Manon Spadaro, Founder and Artistic Director, Chicago Youth Shakespeare]

What is your role in the upcoming production of Hamlet, and how has the process of making it effected you?

  • My roles are King Hamlet, Player King, Bernardo, and a Priest. All of these characters have very different levels of authority, so learning how to dial up and dial down confidence and strength in different situations has allowed me to do the same in interactions in my life. [Caelan Reeves, CYS Student]
  • I play Ophelia, and since I’ve started the process, I’ve thought a lot about the role that teenage girls have in their society. I recently read The Crucible in my English class, and I couldn’t help but make the connection between the two stories and how they capture the drastic actions that teenage girls sometimes have to make to get their voices heard. It’s made me think a lot about how we’re constantly being silenced, and it’s made me realize how unique I am to fight against the roles that society has placed upon me. [Jolie Davidson, CYS Student]
  •  In this production I play the role of Hamlet and it’s been an extremely fun but by no means unchallenging experience. Ironically, during this process I’ve become a lot like Hamlet myself: constantly thinking…and thinking…and thinking a little more just for good measure. With a play as masterfully written as Hamlet there’s so much for an actor to discover, and with only two weeks left until opening night I still feel like I’ve barely even scratched the surface. That’s what I love about performing Shakespeare’s work, and that’s what keeps me coming back to it whenever I can. [Freedom Martin, CYS Student]

What do you think theater or spoken word means/does for contemporary society?

  • I think Shakespearean theater in the contemporary society is just as relevant as it was in the Elizabethan society. We still have the same thoughts and feelings as people back then did and that shows something about the timelessness of theater. [Caitlin Morley, CYS Student Assistant Director, Hamlet]
  • Theatre doesn’t always provide the answers to questions, but it asks the most important questions facing society today. Good theatre not only asks those questions but prompts a dialogue surrounding those questions and themes. At its most basic level, theatre makes people think. [Evelyn Reidy, CYS Artistic and Administrative Associate]

To whom does your theater or spoken word practice give a voice?

  • The parts of me that I am not brave enough to reveal in the real world. [Caitlin Morley, CYS Student Assistant Director, Hamlet]

What is most important to you as a theater or spoken word practitioner?

  • Diversity and accessibility have become incredibly important to me. I want any production I’m involved in to reflect the rich diversity of the world around me. For so long, we saw the same kind of people on stage telling the same story: we are at a cultural and political moment where we cannot go along with the status quo. It’s time for all of us to create art that speaks to as many unique human experiences as we can. [Evelyn Reidy, CYS Artistic and Administrative Associate]
  • The ability to represent the human experience authentically and honestly and have it be recognized as such. It is an absolute privilege, always challenging and incredibly rewarding. [Lawrence Grimm]

What does it mean to be a young person in the theater?

  • To be a young person in theatre comes with lots of preconceived notions about ability… that certain things cannot be done by us young people or that we need more time before we’re ready. I think to be a young person is to blow minds and completely shatter the stereotypes of ability…to revolutionize. [Victor Musoni, Student Poet, Senn Arts High School]
  • At least for myself, being a young person in the theater means showing that I have feelings and ideas that are assumed to be reserved for adults. In fact, theater also means expressing feelings and ideas that are specific to the experience of being a young person. We, as young people, have not yet had many outlets to share our ideas or perspectives. We have so much to say, and I can feel that pressure mounting in every teenage production I do. It is a fuel. [Sophia Zinger, CYS Student]
  • Teenagers are so often the center of pop culture. So many movies, books, and songs are about being a young person, and often, they are centered around a stereotyped or romanticized version of youth. The same is true for plays and performance pieces, but theater must be kept honest. To me, it is the most truthful, raw form of art there is, and that means portraying the complexity of teenagers, and finding the humanity and nuance that is abundantly present in young people. I see so many shows in which adults are playing teenagers, or trying desperately to capture the teenage experience, which can get frustrating. To be a young person in theater means continuously seeing others tackling what means the most to you. It means continuously proving yourself time and time again. We are such an important part of theater. We are the characters in your shows. We are the devoted audience members. We are the future. It is crucial to empower young people through the arts. [Anika Waco, CYS Student]

What have you learned in the making of this production?

  • I always discover so much about myself and the world with every Shakespeare production. If acting is the study of human behavior, then there is no better textbook than Shakespeare. [Manon Spadaro]
  • I have learned to dismantle my filter, and trust my instincts. I have learned that, in a healthy context, unapologetic action is never a negative thing. [Sophia Zinger, CYS Student]
Posted December 6, 2016
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