SALT LAKE CITY — Since leaving his job as a high school teacher 20 years ago to become the educational director for the Utah Shakespeare Festival, Michael Bahr has aimed to make Shakespeare accessible to young students.
“What I would like to say is: Shakespeare performed in playhouses, his actors were called players and all his works, … they're plays, and it's through play that we discover more about ourselves,” Bahr said in a recent interview with the Deseret News. “That’s what I’m really passionate about.”
With the goal to “educate, enrich and entertain,” Utah Shakespeare Festival’s Shakespeare-in-the-Schools visits more than 50 schools and youth communities throughout Utah, Nevada, Arizona and Colorado from January to April each year. The performances, redacted to fit the 90 minute time limit of most class periods, include a Q&A with the production’s six actors, and usually, a workshop that gives students a chance to practice some Shakespeare theatrics firsthand, and includes cool things like combat choreography.
“All the kids, they want to take stage combat; they get all excited about it," Bahr said. " … The minute you take the students at any level, whether that is an adult or whether it's a 7-year-old, when they are on their feet speaking Shakespeare's text and performing, it's a self-actualizing experience. … If you can do Shakespeare, you can do anything.”
In addition to its school outreach program, the Utah Shakespeare touring program aims to reach communities that do not have access to live Shakespeare performances, such as correctional facilities.
Recently, the tour performed "Macbeth" at a juvenile correctional facility in Utah. According to the actors, students who would otherwise “not have a chance” to see a play — let alone "Macbeth" — appeared enthralled by the production.
“One kid at the facility said, ‘I'm so glad I came, I was gonna stay in my cell and read a book, but like, I've never seen a play before, and this was the coolest … thing I've ever seen,'” Stefanie Resnick, who plays Lady Macbeth (among other characters), said in a recent interview. “And the reactions during the shows were so visceral. I thought … those kids were incredible. Tim (Sailer, who plays Macbeth) and I taught them Shakespeare text, and they were so attentive. They were interested and they got it.”
Something about "Macbeth’s" themes and characters, Resnick said, seemed to inspire the students at the facility to think about the play in terms of their own experiences.
“I feel like they were able to relate to the play,” Resnick said. “There was a little bit in the talk back about how we're rooting for Macbeth. Even though he's done terrible things and he doesn't get redemption in the end, there is a kind of, 'Oh wow, I understand what this guy's going through.'”
On the other end of the spectrum, students in public schools that are simply lacking materials benefit immensely from the live, professional performances that Utah Shakespeare Festival makes available.
For example, Jennifer Ansted, an English and theater teacher at Taylorsville's Eisenhower Junior High, took her class of advanced theater students in the seventh, eighth and ninth grade to see "Macbeth," a play that most of her class had never seen before.
“I kind of just wanted to see what they would think because we spent a lot of time this year reading something and analyzing it, and then performing it," Ansted said. " … I wanted them to experience just seeing Shakespeare and seeing how it comes to life without having a lot of context or background.”
Ansted, whose class had a “surprisingly profound” response to the performance, is grateful for what the Shakespeare-in-the-Schools program gives to her students.
“(Our theater program is) … incredible because the kids and the parents are incredible. But there are just limits to what the kids can learn from me, from the time that we have together and the resources that we have,” Ansted said. “Seeing a play like this is such an important cultural experience because … they're writing original plays and monologues, and they are performing some scenes at our festival. … I'm just hoping that they saw something new, and that they've been inspired to think outside whatever box they have been in thus far.”
But the Utah Shakespeare Festival is doing more than touring to fulfill its educational mission. In addition to study guides, vocabulary and discussion questions available online to help educators teach Shakespeare, they also host other immersive Shakespeare programs.
And Bahr communicates frequently with schools to discover what plays might be useful for teachers’ curriculums.
“We have multiple programs that we run. We have our summer classes, … we have our six-week competition, … we have our touring production, which runs from January to April,” Bahr said. “And then we have instructional programs for adults, and teachers and other people who come.
“I think the play is just the beginning of it," Bahr added. “The play gets you talking. The play stimulates that elevated conversation about life — that's what all of the other things are about.”