I recently spent a day with the youth of Inner City Shakespeare Ensemble and was so impressed by their dedication and love of language that I decided this was the way I would celebrate William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday; by sharing the thoughts of the young actors, mentors and leaders that make up this unique theatre company.
I don’t know if Mr. Shakespeare ever dreamed that his writing would live on to the extent that it has, but I do think he would have been proud to see the effect his words have on young people today.
The program is led by three loyal board members: Dr. Melanie Andrews, Paul Heller, and Katy Haber, who are the heart and soul of Inner City Shakespeare and they are in the spotlight in Part I of Shakespeare’s Legacy. You can read what the kids had to say in Part II. Happy Birthday W.S.
Dr. Andrews: Well, first of all, I love Shakespeare. I grew up in Compton and I was sick a lot as a child so I had a lot of home schooling. My mom was brilliant and my grandma sent me all the great books. That was their way to keep me on track. My mom used to read Shakespeare to me and that’s how I became a really good reader. I loved the stories. I loved the universality of it.
SLA: Is that what made you want to teach Shakespeare to kids?
Dr. A: I just felt that they deserved great literature. This is the most diverse group of kids that ever worked together. Most of them are inner city. We have kids from South Central, from East Los, from all over. Many are from single parent homes. Almost nobody has a mom and a dad, and we pick them on purpose. We look for talent and who can benefit from us. We’re able to watch them grow as people, grow as artists, and create this company. We did a big standard casting call looking for kids with talent; looking for kids with diversity; looking for kids who wanted to learn.
SLA: So they have to audition to be in this company.
Dr. A: Yes, even the ones who have been here before.
Dr. A: You watch the kids change before your eyes and that’s why you do it. A lot of them would never even think about going to college if they weren’t part of this company but here we actively encourage them to go. There’s no option. Everyone graduates from high school. LAUSD graduation rate in South Central is about 44%. We’re 100%. 97% go to 4 year colleges and the rest of them go to a junior college or trade school. The idea is you have to get educated.
SLA: How does the mentoring aspect of the program work?
Dr. A: We’ve been doing this for 4 or 5 years and when I first started with the kids I realized that some of them could not read. One day, when the people from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts were coming to watch I said, ‘you, get a kid; you, get a kid; you, get a kid…’ That’s how the mentoring program started. We had actors from Game of Thrones, from House, from a lot of television shows here in town, and actors who have done Shakespeare festivals all over the country. By the time we did Romeo and Juliet we had one mentor for every kid.
This is our first year as a non-profit corporation on our own and we’ve made a partnership with the county parks who are giving us a grant to provide summer jobs for these kids. I’ll train them and then they will work in all the different parks and we’ll do another version of this in the summer.
SLA: What a great way to continue the process.
Paul: Some of the mentors now have lifetime relationships with the students. They call for support, for encouragement. Some don’t have real families and their mentor is someone who believes in them and spends time with them. That’s what this is all about.
Dr. A: Katy is the bunny mother. She never gives up.
Katy: I’ll stick with them until the bitter end. When they don’t come, when they make excuses… I’ll never give up.
SLA: What keeps you going?
Katy: Nothing is more satisfying. I’ve been in the film business all my life and it’s been a very rich life but the greatest rewards are being able to use my experience to give back to the community. What I get from that is far more rewarding than any movie I’ve made or awards that I’ve received.
SLA: I love that you help these students become good, well-rounded people, and you use theatre to do it. Well done. If you could ask for anything for the company, what would you need?
Katy: Funding. We put this on by the skin of our teeth. [You can make a donation to the company HERE] Every little bit helps us.
Seeing the light bulb go off is the big reason the mentors are invested in the process. Cerris Morgan-Moyer is mentoring for the first time with this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and talked about why she loves working with the kids.
“From the smallest level to the biggest level, watching a light bulb go off when one of them understands that technique, married with the freedom of not using your technique, is where the magic happens…that’s what I love. That and teaching them that working consonants, and working with their diaphragm can actually help them release the emotions of the character.
I’ve played Hermia a couple of times so it’s such a happy coincidence for me to work on this production because I know the play so well. I don’t have an assigned person so every week we break out into groups to work on whatever needs help. For example, last week I worked with Brittany, who is playing Hermia, on some physical technique. The week prior I worked with the four lovers and we talked about the emotional journey. Even outside of rehearsal, they know that we’re available. They have our numbers and they know they can call us when they need help.”
Lenny von Dohlen, another one of ICSE’s mentors, says it has been “extremely inspiring and rewarding just to be around them. I did some mentoring when I went back to my alma mater, University of Texas and Loretto Heights College in Denver, but this is the youngest group I’ve mentored. They range from 8 to 18. That’s been a charge because I have a daughter who is 13 so I can sort of place it all around her in my mind.
One of the biggest changes I’ve seen is that there’s a more reflexive need to express themsleves without using the common ‘you knows’ and ‘like this’ and ‘like that’ which drove me up the wall with my own daughter. She’s a bright articulate person but that’s a default that makes her sound less bright than she is. I think playing with Shakespeare’s language gives them more sense of their own individuality.
He, too, says his favorite part of working with them is, “seeing a light bulb go off in their eyes. That’s just it for me.”
Suzan Crowley says she does it “for the moment when the penny drops; when they realize, ‘Oh I see! I can do this!’ These are incredible stories with wonderful characters. Once these students get that they’re universal stories and that they’re a character in that story, and that character can be practically anything…you see them just go.”
Click Here for Part II of Shakespeare’s Legacy Lives on in Inner City Youth.
Click Here for a complete schedule of upcoming performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream