When the lights came up during the tech rehearsal of Romeo and Juliet, Warren Baskin felt a rush of both fear and excitement: “I literally had goosebumps, and I felt chills,” he recalls. That would be a normal reaction for anyone making a stage debut. But this wasn’t any play: It was Shakespeare. And, this production wouldn’t take place in the auditorium of Baskin’s inner-city Chicago public high school: His moment in the limelight would occur on the main stage of the renowned Chicago Shakespeare Theater, before an audience of 500.
Baskin is one of about two dozen Chicago Public School (CPS) students—along with their English teachers—who participate each year in the theater’s CPS Shakespeare! program. Working under the guidance of the theater’s education and production staff, the participants initially meet for a week in the summer. Sessions continue during the fall, after school and on Saturdays, to wrestle with the abridged text of a play, rehearse it, and mount a professionally produced production for family and friends.
The theater launched the program in 2006 as a way to reach students from under-resourced schools who were at risk of “falling through the cracks” socially or academically, explains Director of Education and Communications Marilyn Halperin. While she admits that Shakespeare often seems intimidating to students, the chance to work alongside their teachers draws young people into the program. As they start to master the language and see connections between their lives and the characters’ struggles, they begin to get hooked.
“I always thought of Shakespeare as boring, [with] too many big and hard words,” recalls Jenny Gonzalez, a sophomore who appeared in Othello last year. “But now, every time I see a weird word, I grab the lexicon and look for the meaning because I feel like I’m cracking the code.” The program’s impact goes beyond literacy and language arts, however. The students also work on literary analysis and interpretation. “The most dramatic change I see is in the sense of self-worth and confidence that comes from rising to a daunting challenge,” Halperin declares. “The students feel like, ‘I spoke and I understood Shakespeare’s words. I was his character. And I never, ever, thought I could do that!’”
CPS Shakespeare! develops students’ literary knowledge as it builds confidence, empowering our city’s teens to approach life’s challenges with bravery and self-assurance.Barbara Byrd-Bennett Chief Executive Officer, Chicago Public Schools