Last week I found out that my high school in Massachusetts was, in the face of recent budget cuts, debating cutting back on their participation in the high school residency program, The Fall Festival of Shakespeare, from Shakespeare & Company. The proposal was to make their participation every other year instead of participating every year, as they had for the past two decades. If this had been applied to athletics, the entire town would have been up in arms.
Lenox High School, my alma mater, was one of the high schools to participate in the first Fall Festival, and now they are looking to cut back? This is a high school without a drama curriculum or drama club, whose theater program consists of the Fall Festival play in November and a musical in the spring, so by bowing out of the Fall Festival they would be cutting the program in half every other year.
In the Fall Festival of Shakespeare, Shakespeare & Company sends their education artists to 10-12 high schools in the area to put on a 90 minute Shakespeare play every fall. Each school rehearses under the direction of these education artists, and the project culminates in a non-competitive, four day festival in Shakespeare & Company’s main stage, 450-seat theater in which all of the high schools perform for each other. The energy atmosphere at this festival are unlike any other with hundreds of high school kids are screaming and cheering for each other. It’s every actor’s dream to perform Shakespeare for this audience: they are moved by every beautiful image Shakespeare has crafted, and they get every joke and erupt with laughter. They are right there with you every step of the way.
When I graduated from high school, my dream was to pursue performance in musical theater. Throughout high school I was also involved in two choral groups, dance classes, voice lessons and the musical every spring. But it was the Fall Festival that changed my life. My high school experience would not have been the same. My life now would be completely different.
One of the most monumental achievements of the Fall Festival is that it makes Shakespeare’s text accessible to the people who need it most. Adolescence is a terrifying time, but I found an outlet for the sky-high levels and expansive range of emotion I carried around with me every day. At the end of the school day, I got the chance to explore this amazing text from new and different perspectives. I had enjoyed reading Shakespeare in English class and I understood it enough to pass a test on it. But until the Fall Festival, I had never really experienced it. There is value in approaching Shakespeare from an academic standpoint. But it is the physical, vocal and emotional access points that make these words come alive. I discovered that the lives of these characters were not so different from my own. My playful, mischievous side that was seldom seen came out when I played Ariel in The Tempest, I harnessed my sense of humor as Le Beau in As You Like It, and in the fall of my senior year, I made profound self-discoveries navigating my way through Lady Anne’s grief and despair in Richard III.
The Fall Festival gave me the gift of a safe learning environment where it was finally okay to make mistakes. People accepted me for who I was on any given day. We supported each other in moments of victory and of defeat. I learned to work towards a common goal with people I didn’t know or even didn’t like before. The Festival cultivated a sense of pride and ownership among our cast and crew. All of these are life lessons that I know would not have been as potent if a lower school budget had cut the Festival in half.
I worked at Shakespeare & Company every summer in various capacities all through high school, and I participated in their education programs for five years. Every crystallizing, life-altering, monumental experience I had there comes flooding back to me the second I set foot on those special 43 acres of land. In a way, I have been spoiled: I know that I will be hard-pressed to find an artistic or educational experience that is as emotionally significant as my time in Shakespeare & Company’s education programs. One of the underlying questions of Shakespeare & Company’s approach to Shakespeare’s text is “What does it mean to be alive?” This is a question I asked myself daily throughout high school. And in the Fall Festival, I took a stab at finding an answer. Shakespeare’s words became my own. As a theater and education student at American University, I am realizing with each new experience in my life that this is the work I want to do. This is the kind of artistic fulfillment I am constantly searching for, and this is what I want to teach. My passion for theater and the pull I feel towards connecting the arts and education can all be traced back to the Fall Festival.
I’ll end with good news: at a recent school board meeting, after hearing numerous testimonials from parents, teachers and students, they decided not to cut back on the Fall Festival, but to go into fundraising mode to keep the Festival alive at Lenox High School for all four years. I was relieved to hear this, but also immediately perplexed as to why this wasn’t the first reaction to the budget cuts? Why not fight to keep 100% of the value and experience, instead of settling for 50%?