For many of us with a western education, the memory of being forced to read Shakespeare in English class is not a fond one. That is certainly not because Shakespeare is boring or irrelevant (on the contrary!), it is more likely because Shakespeare simply was not meant to just be read, as it usually is in the typical educational setting. Almost every autumn since 1993, Montana Shakespeare in the Parks (MSIP), an outreach program of the MSU School of Arts and Architecture, has aimed to introduce high school students to the works of William Shakespeare in an approachable, relatable and, most importantly, fun way. MSIP sends out its Montana Shakespeare in the Schools Tour (MSIS) to 47 schools across Montana and Northern Wyoming over ten weeks. When MSIS began in 1993, the program consisted of two actors in front of nothing more than a banner, performing selected Shakespearean scenes. Today, MSIS is a team of eight actors performing a full play complete with costumes and a set.
To the uninitiated, the language of Shakespeare is completely unapproachable, and at some times almost gibberish. The early 1600s were quite a long time ago, and the society presented in Shakespeare’s plays doesn’t seem to have anything to do with our present one. In reality, the core themes of his works have to do with very familiar topics: familial duties and relationship troubles, love and hate. “It is important for us to respect the lives of our students by NOT producing Shakespeare as a ‘museum piece,’ but rather as a living mirror through which elements of their lives can be dramatized through Shakespeare’s characters, relationships and language,” explains MSIP Executive Artistic Director Kevin Asselin in his welcome letter for MSIS 2017’s “Twelfth Night.” Shakespeare, plainly put, is a blank slate for our imaginations to feast upon. “Romeo and Juliet” at face value is the tale of a perfect storm of miscommunication and deep-seeded generational hatred leading to the deaths of two hasty teenagers, with some other collateral damage as well. But, for instance, cast a person of color as one of the lovers and suddenly the story is exploring racism instead of just petty generational drama, as was the case in MSIS’s 2019 production of “R&J.” Or how about 2018’s “Julius Caesar”? Viewed through the political and social lens of that year, a larger story is told than just the words that Shakespeare wrote in 1599.
Officially on the road this Friday, Oct. 1, MSIP brings students William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing:” a comedy driven by lots of crossed wires and pride, all culminating in a very happy ending. Literally, much ado about nothing. Set loosely in present day Miami, this adaptation brings forth themes of truth in media and not believing everything you see on the internet. The inciting incident of the story is when Don John (the not-so-nice half brother of the prince) makes Claudio (a valorous soldier in the Prince’s army) believe his betrothed has been unfaithful through a complicated plot of manipulation and disguises. In MSIP’s adaptation, the evidence is shown in a phone video, later revealed to have been “doctored.” The skill of sussing out dishonest and manipulative content on the internet becomes more important every day in the Internet Age, and obviously high school students can relate to dramatic social news being discovered online.
Especially after this long and dry almost two years, a live theatrical performance in any capacity is simply a joy. For the next ten weeks, high school students across the state will enjoy an educational (and entertaining!) experience that they may not otherwise be exposed to. Many towns MSIS reaches don’t have a way to show their students professional performing arts and, for some, this program inspires a passion for story-telling and theater that will last a lifetime. Montana has had a love affair with The Bard for a very long time, and Shakespeare in the schools is working hard to instill this love in the next generation.