Inspiring Shakespeare In the Park

However important we regard him, however influential his work is in the canon of literature, Shakespeare isn’t relaxing. At best, most people would call his work challenging. At worst, they ignore it altogether as the reserve of elites; enjoyed only by people educated enough to be familiar with his work. Admittedly, this reputation isn’t undeserved. It requires effort and concentration to understand what is going on, to follow the many characters and their difficult dialogue. This is enough for most of us to move Shakespeare out of the realm of regular entertainment.

Yet, Shakespeare’s work continues to draw audiences. There is value in his work’s challenge to the audience by making them engaging critically with the universal themes he presents. The art that Shakespeare created is as important today as it was when he wrote it and continues to offer something to everyone who chooses to engage it.

For the last four years Project Hope Alliance has been fortunate to be able to give our students and families the chance to engage Shakespeare. And, they have done so with enthusiasm.

Under the leadership of Eli Simon, and Dr. Julia Lupton, Project Hope Alliance has partnered with the New Swan Theater, UCI Shakespeare Center, Claire Trevor School for the Arts Drama Department, and UCI Dining to allow our families to enjoy a dress rehearsal of that season’s production. Over the course of this partnership our family’s attendance has grown each year and it isn’t difficult to understand why.

The experience for our kids and their families is immersive without being intimidating. Walking into the contemporary Globe Theater any expectations that this is classic Shakespeare is immediately dispelled. The environment is more like Romeo and Juliet staring Leonardo DiCaprio, than Julius Caesar with Marlon Brando, or Hamlet with Laurence Olivier.

The sets take our families to places that are new but not unfamiliar. Macbeth appears in a dystopian/post-apocalyptic future, while Twelfth Night is set around the turn of the 20th century. The costumes do the same, dressing characters in dark military inspired clothes, or in classic suits with bowler and top hats to match their position. This all serves to add context to the production, and guide the audience through the story. Most importantly, the reinterpreted sets, costumes, and overall production allows our families to access art they once thought unapproachable; an introduction to Shakespeare in the most effective way.

For the children, the greatest impact arrives because of the way the production present the material, and how it challenges their expectations of Shakespeare. By breaking the traditional Shakespeare mold, challenging pre-conceptions of what Shakespeare is supposed to be, the children start to do the same in the context of their lives. They start to question the expectations of what they are supposed to become; who they are supposed to be. Even if they don’t realize it immediately, the performances plant seeds of inspiration for our kids.

It happens every year. And we are grateful to Shakespeare, UCI, and the many partners who help plant those seeds of inspiration.