ArtSpace theater grows young Shakespearean actors

John Hall
Special to Black Mountain News | USA TODAY NETWORK
ArtSpace Charter School's Patrick Flynn, Olivia Taylor, Jackson Knoll and Sophie Coggins perform in last year's production of "The Merchant of Venice."

I began my teaching job at ArtSpace Charter School in the fall of 2003, after almost three years teaching at West McDowell Junior High.  Before I became a teacher, I worked in professional theater as an actor, director and producer.  Through my experience with children’s theater, I experienced the power of creative dramatics with young people.

When I began teaching at ArtSpace, a school dedicated to integrating the arts with the standard course of study, I knew I could utilize my theater background in the classroom.  So, in my first year as a language arts and social studies teacher at ArtSpace I worked with our drama specialist, Josh Batenhorst, to introduce the works of William Shakespeare to sixth and seventh grade. 

Why Shakespeare? Integrating the plays of William Shakespeare into the language arts and socials studies curriculum allowed me to teach figurative language, poetry and storytelling to students within a historical and social context. And it allowed our drama specialist to teach the theater arts curriculum as well. Plus, it was fun!

John Hall coaches student Zya Pegg in ArtSpace's 2016 production of "The Merry Wives of Windsor."

Our first productions, “Hamlet” (seventh grade) and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (sixth grade), took place in my classroom.  We used shortened versions of the plays, with slightly altered translations of the text to make them more accessible to students. It was a challenging endeavor to say the least, though ultimately a success, and the feedback from students, families and staff encouraged me to continue the yearly project. 

Since ArtSpace, a fairly new school in the early 2000s, didn’t yet have its own theater, the next few years we rented spaces from local venues such as NC Stage Company, Belk Theater at UNCA and The Asheville School to perform our Shakespeare plays.  Our productions grew in ambition, and students even performed scenes for a retirement home in nearby Black Mountain. 

After a few years, Josh (“Captain Josh” as we all called him) challenged me to drop the slightly-altered versions and have students perform the true Shakespearean texts. Working solely with sixth-graders at that point, I was concerned students might struggle with the difficult words, but ultimately agreed that the beauty of Shakespeare’s imagery and writing was worth the struggle.

It was a wise move, and the experience of hearing Shakespeare’s soaring language coming from our students was magical.

 In our new theater space that opened in 2008, sixth-graders have tackled such plays as “Twelfth Night,” “Julius Caesar,” “Romeo & Juliet,” “Richard III,” “MacBeth,” “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” “Henry V,” “As You Like It” and “The Comedy of Errors” (set in the “Star Wars” universe no less!).

Captain Josh left ArtSpace a few years ago, but our current drama specialist Beth Lexa has continued working with sixth grade to bring Shakespeare’s plays to the stage.

Not only does utilizing Shakespeare’s works enable me to teach language and oral expression in a historical context, the plays are also able to be used as vehicles to address social and ethical issues.  For example, last year’s sixth-graders performed “The Merchant of Venice” and “The Taming of the Shrew,” two highly controversial plays (“Merchant” for its anti-Semitism and “Shrew” for its sexism).

Because I knew we’d be performing these plays in March, I began the school year focusing on the theme of  “status” and how ancient cultures developed social systems based on levels of status, often regarding gender.

Furthermore, when we began preparing for our plays, students conducted interviews with family members regarding moments in their lives when they were aware of status, and how that awareness affected them.

The results of these family conversations were astounding. Parents and grandparents related experiences of gender inequality and racial profiling, among other memories. 

Students also studied the history of anti-Semitism and how it spread over Europe and eventually the U.S. In fact, at the same time students were rehearsing “The Merchant of Venice,” the U.S. saw an uptick in anti-Semitic hate crimes.  Though not always pleasant, this exploration of status in ancient cultures and our own society deepened students’ understanding of the two plays they were performing, as well as the human proclivity for exclusion and alienation.

What has been the legacy of 15 years of Shakespeare in the Swannanoa Valley? Former students and parents of former students relate stories of how their experiences with Shakespeare’s plays in sixth grade at ArtSpace positively affected their lives.  Several former students are still performing on stage in high school and college, and tell us that their love of theater and performance began with their sixth-grade Shakespeare plays.

Though our yearly Shakespeare plays have given students the opportunity to develop a love of performing, they’ve also given struggling students an opportunity to experience success where they haven’t in traditional academics. Some of my best memories from the Shakespeare plays have been when struggling students or students with special needs were able to achieve success and receive positive feedback from peers.  The confidence these students received from their success in the plays stuck with them, affecting other areas of their learning and their lives.  These memories are most gratifying.            

So now, ArtSpace sixth grade is once again in preparation for our Shakespeare plays. As in 2003, our plays will be “Hamlet” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”  To quote from “Hamlet,” “The play’s the thing!”