"I can't heeeeaaaar you!" Stacey Bone-Gleason yelled out in an almost sing-song fashion. The artist was near the back of the school's gym, hopping up and down and wildly waving her arms as 25 middle school students' voices took a crescendo in unison. "There you go that's better!"
Bone-Gleason, the energetic director of choreography for TADA! Youth Theater company, was rehearsing last-minute lines, pas de bourrees, and freestyle jigs with the students from UNIS Queens, just minutes before the proverbial curtain call. In reality, there was no curtain, not lights (or camera, action! for that matter), but this was a staged performance, presented in front of the actors' younger peers and teachers, and a unique one at that.
Just three months earlier, Bone-Gleason and her colleague and music director Magnus Tonning Riise began working with the seventh and eighth graders with a goal of integrating the dramatic arts into aspects of the students' literature curriculum, which featured readings of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet. It was not to be a direct reading, but rather, an adaptation, produced entirely by the students themselves. "This is quite a remarkable feat," Bone-Gleason praised the students before the start of the performance, "To have produced, written, and rehearsed an entire play in just 13 short weeks."
"The idea was to create original works using the major, universal themes presented in each play," says Bone-Gleason. "This allowed the students to place the historical plays in their brains in a relatable and creative way." Using the themes of loss, love, betrayal, and jealousy, among others, students were asked to write scripts and incorporate music into a whole new setting. Those working with the Julius Caesar text, for example, included Japanese Noh masks into their acting as a means of showcasing the entire ensemble. For Romeo and Juliet, the eighth graders set the scene in 17th century America, with a colonial tilt added to the narrative.
"Collaboration throughout the process became key to its success," says Bone-Gleason. "The students wrote their own stories to the themes, and then edited those stories down into a single play. They also had to sneak one original line into the text, and that whole process led to a few surprises." Like how vernacular such as "Okay, man," landed in Marc Antony's request to address the people of Rome, or Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance with Somebody" played a prominent role in the colonial love triangle meant to represent Romeo and Juliet.
Beyond that, Bone-Gleason was struck by their global perspective. "I work with students in programs across the city, and the international nature of those at UNIS astounded me," she says. "They have such a great grasp on the world, and that was really reflected in the stories that they wrote in preparation for this play."
Monica Robbins, the students' literature teacher and an eager audience member that morning, remarked, "Shakespeare's texts are timeless and certainly not limited to our own historical context. We strive to take the students outside the plays to live their universal qualities." After this successful test-run, TADA! will continue working with UNIS Queens in the coming months, this time, with the fifth and sixth graders. To see more photos of the performance, visit our Flickr album.