imageWashington, D.C., students in the Julius Caesar cast
By Gail Kern Paster

February and March are favorite months of the year here, because they herald the arrival of high school students from the Washington, D.C., area who come to perform in the Elizabethan Theatre at our Student Shakespeare Festivals. Groups of kids who have worked with their teachers for weeks on Shakespeare scenes come for the day—costumes and lunches in their backpacks—to perform in front of audiences composed of other students, parents, Folger docents and staff. Each day of the seven-day festival begins with the students “waking up the books”—giving a loud shout that can be heard on the other side of the theater wall, in the Reading Room. By day’s end, eight schools have performed their own scenes and have also participated in Shakespeare improvs under the exhilarating tutelage of the Mistress of the Revels.

It’s easy for me to recall my favorite performance from last year: it was “Julius Caesar Comes to Harlem” performed by a dozen teenagers from Oak Hill Academy, a residential facility of the Division of Youth Rehabilitation Services for young men awaiting the outcomes of their court cases. Invited to participate by Head of DYRS Vincent Schiraldi (himself married to a Folger docent) and prepared by Folger staff members Bob Young and Deidra Starnes, the kids had worked hard on a stripped-down version of Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy of the meeting of the conspirators at Brutus’ house in Act 2, scene 1; the assassination itself in 3.1; and the two funeral orations in 3.2. Since the scenes were set in Harlem, the Roman patricians could wear modern business attire—I remember Julius Caesar resplendent in a purple double-breasted suit, an outfit oddly appropriate for the would-be emperor.

The play itself was a good choice for these students: there are a number of large ensemble scenes and virtually no female characters, and one of its central themes—deadly male rivalries leading to assassination—could not have been far from the experience of some of these young men. But Shakespeare’s language is not easy, and the funeral orations especially involve emotional crescendos and moments of searing irony that challenge skilled professional actors. I found it moving to see these young men engage Shakespeare’s words and action with conviction and clarity. Their ability to do so—and to feel larger and more confident as a result—is central to what we believe happens when Shakespeare is taught through performance. These kids would perform the scenes again at Oak Hill before their schoolmates, but they gave it their all for their Folger audience.

Young, the Folger’s director of education, reports that it can be both challenging and thrilling to work with these students. Seeing them perform Shakespeare on the Folger stage is evidence of our educational mission in action.    

Paster is director of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. The Folger opened with a gift from Henry Clay Folger, Class of 1879, and his wife, Emily, and is administered under the auspices of Amherst College.

Photo by Reggie Sanders