In two weeks, the cast of the Yale Rep’s production of “King Lear” will perform for a pretty discerning audience. It will not be members of the British monarchy — a la “Shakespeare in Love” — or even a group of eminent theater critics. Instead, for a week-long period, the actors will deliver their lines to nearly 2,000 Connecticut middle- and high-school students.
The shows are part of Will Power!, a new community outreach program the Rep is offering to engage area teenagers in the study of Shakespeare. In addition to five matinee performances of “Lear,” the theater is providing local schools with extensive classroom support — in-class presentations about the play’s themes, a day-long workshop for teachers, and pre- and post-show activities to help tie it all together.
Why Shakespeare? Drama School Dean James Bundy said the answer is simple — though his prose may be challenging, the Bard is the best there is.
“When you’re going to the first game of the World Series, you throw your best pitcher at the other team,” Bundy said.
Though the Rep has performed for student audiences in the past, this is the first time the theater has launched such an extensive program. Bundy, who is also the Rep’s artistic director, said he wants to get as many schools as possible involved because performing plays for young people is “one of the most important things a theater can do.”
“One of the most electric experiences I know of is when young people — most of whom don’t have the experience of seeing Shakespeare live — meet the plays and have a visceral, kinetic and immediate response to the story and the form,” he said. “What we’re really doing is investing in young people and a great playwright and the future of their relationship.”
To encourage participation in the program, the Rep is holding the performances during the school day and charging only $5 a ticket for New Haven students. So far, 45 schools from the Elm City, Hartford and beyond have signed up.
On Thursday morning, Ruth Feldman, the Rep’s education manager, headed into Jepson Middle School to give her fifth in-class presentation of the month. Standing in front of 42 seventh-graders — none of whom had read “Lear” — Feldman began with the basics.
“Do you ever really want something that you can’t have? Something that your brother or sister has?” she asked, pausing to judge the class’s reaction. A few students nodded.
“Well, that’s what Shakespeare’s writing about,” she continued. “He’s writing about siblings who don’t get along. He’s writing about people who want something they can’t have. In this case, it’s power.”
After discussing more of the play’s plot and themes, Feldman moved on to the specifics of the production, which is set in the ancient Olmec civilization and performed by an all African-American cast. She showed the class slides of the actors’ colorful, heavily-feathered costumes, handed out study guides portraying the set’s centerpiece — a 17-foot tall stone head — and walked students through a “translation” of a dialogue between two principal characters, Edgar and Edmund.
“These kids were getting it,” she said post-presentation. “If you give them context, they absolutely will get it.”
As she packed up, Feldman was congratulated by Terri Santillo, Jepson’s staff developer. Santillo said some teachers were originally wary about taking students to see a three-hour-long staging of one of Shakespeare’s toughest works. But she said she was convinced by Feldman’s presentation that the play would “capture” her students.
“I think people get frightened by the thought that ‘I’m not going to get it,’” Santillo said. “This will give [the students] the opportunity to think, ‘Gee, I like this.’ It could lure them in.”
Feldman typically does the presentations along with graduate students from the Drama School. During a school visit last week, Christopher Carter Sanderson DRA ’05 conducted a mini-rehearsal, directing a high-school class in a scene from “Lear.”
“They really caught fire,” he said of the students. “It gave them a good and profound taste of what it is like to be an actor in a Shakespeare play.”
Sanderson said he has already been invited back — by both teachers and students — to do more directing. He called Will Power! a “wonderful enterprise.”
“This [program] says listen, the Yale Rep really cares about your experience at the theater,” Sanderson said. “They’re not just sending out a bunch of materials nobody will even read. They’re putting their money where their mouth is.”
With about two weeks remaining until showtime, Feldman and Bundy are now working out the final logistics. But they both said they expect the performances to be a win-win situation — rewarding for the students and the actors.
“Typically, young people get really excited when the lights go out, and if you’re excited when the lights go out, what’s going to happen when there are sword fights?” Bundy said. “One of the reasons I find it so thrilling is that the audience is alive and not jaded and without prejudices about what the theater is supposed to be. For my money, that’s as good as it gets.”