The idea for the Summer Shakespeare Theatre program actually came about from seeing a bad production of one of his works. It was 1985, and I had just come back from my honeymoon and as a new teacher was required to attend a week-long education conference at U.W. Platteville. While there, I attended performances of the now defunct Wisconsin Shakespeare Festival. While there were many wonderful moments witnessed on stage, the production of MACBETH which was offered featured several “guest artists” who were actually television soap opera actors moonlighting in lead roles. The amount of ‘scenery chewing’ and overacting was disappointing, if not embarrassing. After making it through the production, I commented to my new wife, “My students could act as well, probably better.” That Fall, after starting the school year at Washington Junior High School in Kenosha where I taught English and Drama, I wrote a proposal for a summer theatre program where students from all the high schools in the city could come together to learn about and perform a work of the greatest playwright in the English language. To say that the idea was received coolly is an understatement. I was told that kids would never give up their summers to be cooped up inside a theatre, let alone work with other students from rival schools. Then, Shakespeare? No self-respecting teenager would voluntarily give up his vacation for something he couldn’t even understand. The whole notion was crazy. However, having even then as a new teacher developed a reputation for leaning towards the unorthodox, the educational Powers that Be gave me permission to fail. I could offer the course as part of the summer school curriculum but for no credit. I would be allowed to use one of the local high school auditoriums, but would receive no budget for the production.
Accepting those terms, Summer Shakespeare was born. In the summer of 1987 a group of 16 young high school actors—many of them students I had taught at Washington, met on the stage of Reuther High School in downtown Kenosha to study and perform MACBETH. Having no money and less experience, we created a castle out of pallets “borrowed” from behind a nearby K-Mart, rolls of butcher paper and chicken wire, and vines taken from one of the cast member’s back yards in a midnight stealth operation. The result was something vaguely Medieval and even impressive—if you kept the stage lights very low. Audiences were small, but appreciative. It was a magical experience—made more magical by the birth of my first child just a week before opening.
After surviving that initial year, subsequent summers brought more students from more schools as well as loyal and larger audiences. In the summer of 1999, now a teacher at Tremper High School in Kenosha, and preparing OTHELLO, I was offered a position at North High School in Appleton as theatre director. One of my requests before accepting the job was to be allowed to continue the Summer Shakespeare Theatre program in the Fox Valley.
And so in the summer of 2000, AS YOU LIKE IT was presented in the North auditorium by a group of 16 students from various area high schools to a small, but appreciative audience. Since then, the program has grown to include over 50 students each summer—each of them carrying on a tradition that started before any of them was even born.
That tradition which is now celebrating its 31st year is a strong one—this is evident not only in the continued interest and participation of current students but even more so in the enthusiastic and heart-warming response of hundreds of former program participants—many now in their 40’s—who continue to share with me and others the fond memories they have of their time with the Bard on stage or back stage and of the impact the program continues to have on their lives. Some have gone on to become professional actors—performing Shakespeare (now for money) on stages around the world. Others have become teachers and have brought their love of Shakespeare into their own classrooms to share. All of them carry a part of this unique and indelible experience inside themselves—whether for the first time as a student in this production or as an adult from their own former productions long past.
Regardless of the time or the place where they first met the man who is Shakespeare, the many hundreds of individuals who have been part of Summer Shakespeare Theatre all share the same connection and passion for his genius. And while it is that genius which is really at the heart of this program—what we are really celebrating is each other and all that we have found therein.
If you have any questions or comments, please contact us at aasdsummershakespeare.gmail.com or on Twitter @FVSummerShakes