Interview with Linda Lowy, Founding Artistic Director, Shakespeare Now! Theatre Company by journalist Roanna E. Forman.
How did you first fall in love with Shakespeare?
That's easy. When I was 11 years old, my father brought home an LP (record album!) of HAMLET, featuring the English actor Michael Redgrave. I'd never heard anything like the language on this record. I sat there for days on end, after school with my head to the stereo, turning the pages of the accompanying script, listening to the play.
I was enthralled by not only the emotionally rich language, but also by the relationships between the characters. I was simply amazed that one man, Hamlet, could be so many things to so many different people: a jealous son, an angry stepson, a son in mourning for his dead father, a lover to Ophelia, a friend to Horatio, and so on. The play taught me the power and expressiveness of theater at an early age.
What gave you the idea for the program?
I was an English and drama teacher for a number of years, but my heart has always been in the performing arts. Once my children were well into their teens, I decided to do what I've always wanted to do, get involved in theater full-time.
I knew that all schools have Shakespeare's plays in their English/Language Arts curriculum, and I knew there was a need for live Shakespearean theater that could be filled by a Shakespeare-in-Education company.
Can you briefly summarize how it's grown and evolved over the years?
I started the company in 2000 with a few actors, and put together one or two touring productions. We had maybe 8 performances the first year. Gradually, as our marketing expanded along with our database, not to mention word-of-mouth which touted our reputation for excellence, the shows have increased to over 100 per year.
Three years ago, we began producing a full-length Shakespeare play in Boston each November (at Mass. College of Art on Huntington Avenue) for students to attend as a field trip, aside from our Spring school-touring season. So we are now busy year-round, with students coming to us, and us going to their schools. We reach thousands of students every year.
Which has been the most popular production & why, do you think?
We travel each Spring with A Midsummer Night's Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth. Of the three, I would have to say that Midsummer is the most popular in terms of demand year after year. Teachers think it is the best introduction to Shakespeare because of its magical and comedic aspects. Plus a man in a dress (Thisbe) is always funny. But, actually, it has one of the most complex plots in all Shakespeare!
What themes matter most to the kids? What sorts of questions do they ask?
We bring our shows to elementary, middle and high school students.
Shakespeare's themes and insights into human nature are huge, and it's the bigness of the language and ideas which stun the students as audience members. Most likely they've never heard or seen anything like this before…but they certainly relate to the passionate love between Romeo and Juliet, and their impetuosity. Also the wildness of a Mercutio. These characters have great appeal. The issues of self-esteem and lovers' rejection in Midsummer really grab them. Macbeth daunts them a bit, but they understand his ambition and how he knocks down whatever is in his way to get what he wants. And the three witches always amuse and intrigue the kids.
The youngest students ask about the stage combat and violence, “are the swords real…do you really stab each other…” Older students want to know if the kissing is real, so the questions have more to do with the very nature of theater - reality versus unreality, or holding the mirror up to nature.
More sophisticated questions have to do with our choices in terms of characterizations, plus the mechanics of cutting the plays (we bring hour-long adaptations to schools), and traveling with a set and actors.
Do you reach out to communities of color? Have they shown any interest in the program?
We perform in inner city schools and others with diverse student populations. Shakespeare is meant for everybody, and all students respond, whether psychologically, sociologically, or both, to the huge goings-on that they see onstage.
We also offer interactive student workshops so that the kids can play with the idioms and images in Shakespeare's language kinesthetically. These activities help provide students with some “ownership” and mastery of the language, and add enormously to their understanding of the characters' situations in the plays.
What are some of the most satisfying aspects of your program for you? for the children?
As a producer, I'm excited by the growth of the company, by the fabulous young actors and gifted directors we have been able to attract. My chief concern is maintaining a consistently top-of-the-line quality of our product, so I'm gratified when our shows really reach out and touch our student audiences.
Since I occasionally perform with the company (Lady Capulet these days), I love being part of a show which evokes a huge response from our kids - the laughter, the sorrow, and the pity. It all thrills me as a performer.
We know we've hit our marks when young people who can otherwise be “too cool for school” stand up and say, “that was the most awesome thing I've ever seen,” or “Pyramus, you're the man!”
What is the impact of live theater on today's kids? How does Shakespeare matter to our culture today?
That's an important and vital question. First of all, kids are mired in trashy TV and other media junk. Attention spans have decreased in some respects, and there is a huge emphasis on the visual/technical rather than audio/lingual attributes.
In Shakespeare's time people went to “hear” a play, since the language took the place of scenery and special effects. It's actually difficult, nowadays, for kids and probably adults, too, to settle down in their seats and watch a play. So I would say that live theater is much more immediate, and has much more power to transform a student through that “real-time” quality, than does something which appears on a screen. I have no doubt that we inspire and encourage at least one child during each of our shows. And I'm happy to be part of that process.
There's been a lot written about the “relevance” of Shakespeare's plays in modern society. But it isn't only that his themes still resonate today. It's that his characters are so human. Hamlet is every one of us. So is Juliet. So is Lady Macbeth, Oberon, and Puck.. We each feel hurt, anguish, jealousy, passionate love, silliness, pleasure. Students will always have at least one character they can relate to as they watch our performances. And it's that relationship, that personal connection, that brings Shakespeare home to them.
Why do you think that of the long list of schools that have had performances, only a small percentage are from the inner city Boston area, if I am interpreting the statistics right?
Funding is always an issue, as are the increased demands of MCAS readiness, but more and more city schools are realizing that Shakespeare Now! is here to enhance the academics, and that live theater stimulates interest in the written word and boosts literacy skills! With that realization comes an increased eagerness on the part of school administrators to bring in live Shakespearean theater. Plus, the MCAS asks students to interpret lines and monologues from Shakespeare's plays, so there's an added value in bringing live Shakespeare to students!