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Three local companies receive NEA grants to help kids brush up on their Shakespeare

April 30, 2010 |  4:48 pm

Much-1 Remember those long afternoons in English class, plowing through "Macbeth"?

Well, Shakespeare is meant to be seen and heard, not read--which is why the National Endowment for the Arts created Shakespeare for a New Generation, a grant program designed to help theaters bring the Bard to life for middle and high school students.

A Noise Within in Glendale, the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles and the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga are among 40 nonprofit professional companies that have been awarded $25,000 New Generation grants this year.

Co-artistic director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott says A Noise Within--which like the Shakespeare Center and Theatricum is a repeat recipient--will use the money to provide 800 to 1,000 scholarships that will allow students to attend performances and pre- and post-show workshops.

"One of the most challenging things for kids is reading Shakespeare," says Rodriguez-Elliott. "But that's not what Shakespeare intended. Experiencing one of his plays in a theater is what he wanted. That is something that's hard to duplicate."

The Theatricum's grant will help pay for its School Days program, which brings students in grades K-12 to the woodsy amphitheater to meet actors portraying Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth I, learn Elizabethan dancing and juggling and see a play, followed by a question-and-answer session. (Teaching artists visit schools beforehand to prep each class.)

This coming season, students will attend the company's productions of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Hamlet. " 'Dream' is a beautiful introduction to Shakespeare for all ages," says Elizabeth Tobias, Theatricum's school programs director, "and the chance to have your first encounter with 'Hamlet' be onstage is amazing."

The Shakespeare Center, formerly known as Shakespeare Festival/LA, used last year's grant to design a "Romeo and Juliet" with high school kids in mind. The show--which was set in Boyle Heights in the 1930s--and accompanying workshops drew more than 3,000 students from 35 schools. 

"We think we struck a chord," says artistic director Ben Donenberg, "so we'll do another production next spring."

Shakespeare for a New Generation, which is managed by Arts Midwest, was started in 2003 as part of the NEA's Shakespeare in American Communities initiative.

--Karen Wada

Photo: JD Cullum and Torri Higginson in "Much Ado About Nothing," which is running through May 21 at A Noise Within. Credit: Craig Schwartz