Shakespeare Festival hits the road

November 27, 2001

Arthur Nead
Phone: 865-5714

Several times each week during the fall, four T-shirt-clad actors load stools, a boom box and a couple of swords into a minivan, and then set out to bring Shakespeare to children at New Orleans middle and high schools and points beyond.

The program, called Shakespeare on the Road, is presented by professional actors, and is sponsored by the Shakespeare Festival at Tulane, which has been in operation for eight years. "We're a professional theater company, associated with the Department of Theatre and Dance," says Brad Robbert, the festival's production manager. Shakespeare on the Road is an informal 40-minute piece performed on location in almost any kind of space.

"That's the design," adds Clare Moncrief, the festival's managing director. "Schools don't have to worry that they may not have a stage or a sound system of their own or dressing rooms. We can do it on the grass, as long as there's a plug for the boom box."

"The actors present a brisk introduction to the life and times of Shakespeare, together with excerpts from more than 12 of the Bard's plays. Students learn that he was a very real person and perhaps not so different from them," says Moncrief.

"They learn about how the plague nearly wiped out London. They were burning witches at the time. In the New World, a lot was happening, and in the middle of it all, Shakespeare happens! The actors intertwine historical tidbits with excerpts from the plays. It never becomes a lecture," says Robbert.

"No demonstration of Shakespeare is complete without a duel. They do the sword fight between St. Joan and the Dauphine of France from Henry VI, Part Two," says Moncrief.

Shakespeare on the Road is but one component of a larger entertainment and educational program. The main event for the Shakespeare Festival at Tulane is its summer season, when it presents two Shakespeare plays at its main stage.

Last summer, the festival added a more intimate setting--a lagniappe stage to also present two plays by contemporary Louisiana playwrights. "The festival began with the summer presentations," says Moncrief, an adjunct professor in the theatre and dance department, and a company actor, but, thanks to the vision of artistic director Aimee Michel, has grown to include a significant educational component. Each January, the company stages eight full-dress performances at Dixon Hall, providing thousands of middle and high school students the chance to experience a complete, live production.

Hamlet is slated for this January. In July, the festival offers the BellSouth Institute on Teaching Shakespeare, an intensive weekend workshop for theater and English teachers from area middle and high schools. "We're one of the few companies in New Orleans that operates year-round, regularly paying our professional actors," says Moncrief, adding that the company is grateful to the university, which helps with staffing, office space and equipment, as well as the theater department, which donates rehearsal and performance space.

Producing full-length plays, especially historical ones, is very expensive, she says, so a lot of money has to be generated. Proceeds from ticket sales are limited due to theater size, she says, so the group relies on grant funding, as well as private, corporate and individual donors.

For the third year in a row, Entergy has provided a grant that covers the cost of taking Shakespeare on the Road to 20 partner schools in Orleans Parish--resource-challenged schools that otherwise would be unable to afford this program. Two other donors, Hibernia and Bank One, are providing funding to bring these same students to the full-length production of Hamlet at Dixon Hall in January. "That way, they get the full circle," says Moncrief.

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Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000