Christine Albright reflects on her time touring for the School Visit Partnership Program.
The 5 in Oregon is a rather happenin’ route. (Forgive me, I still say “The 5.” It comes from my years trying to fit in with southern Californians. Now that I’m living in Oregon, I find it hard to break the habit.) But I mean it when I say it’s happenin’. The businesses seem fine, especially near cities like Eugene, Salem, and Portland, gas stations charge too much for gas, but people still buy it, and the strip mall parking lots are filled with cars, especially around Christmas. But take an exit, any exit, and travel east or west, for about a half an hour, and see if your journey is like mine.
Fellow actor Wayne Carr and I left Ashland at the close of the OSF season to begin our School Visit Program adventure. We loaded a little car to the brim with props and Shakespeare curriculum and headed north to perform and teach for Oregon high school students. I was excited, because I was the veteran on this tour. In 2010, my partner, David Salsa, and I were assigned schools close to the city centers of Portland, Tacoma, and Seattle. We had a blast. We’d arrive early in the morning (who doesn’t love Shakespeare at 7:30 AM?) do a couple of performances and finish the day with two workshops. Kids saw us as a day off from the usual grind of pop-quizzes and homework, so they were happy to have us in their schools. These students weren’t strangers to Shakespeare, but most of them weren’t fans. However, after our workshops, they really got it; by giving them the text, letting them speak it out loud, finding ways to involve physicality and discussion, these classics just cracked wide open. Kids would walk up to us and say, “You know, I thought I hated Shakespeare, but I never knew it could be this much fun. I never knew that I could understand it, but now I think I do.” Mission Accomplished. I finished everyday feeling like a rock star.
But this year was different. Our schools were not in city centers; rather they were off The 5, sorry, I-5. As we drove, businesses faded away behind us, and some beautiful farmland stretched on ahead. We’d see signs for the towns we were headed for followed by vacant storefronts, closed mechanic’s shops, and empty mom and pop restaurants. Another mile and we’d hit the center of town. There’d be a Walmart, a McDonald’s, maybe a Safeway, and sitting amidst this, our school for the week. The kids were different, too. No rock star status for us at these schools, because the kids just didn’t have the energy. They seemed tired and apathetic, depressed even. I talked to a few teachers and asked them if this was normal. “Unfortunately,” one teacher told me, “our kids have lost their spark. They look at what’s happening in their homes, with their parents, in this town, and they don’t see much hope for a future. Most of them look at us and say, ‘Why should we even try?’”
Ugh, right? But please keep reading. I promise there’s a twist, a happy ending ahead. Don’t give up on me, because Wayne and I didn’t give up.
The thing that made our tour special was that Wayne and I were visiting our Partnership Schools. “What’s a Partnership School?” you ask. Well, in attempts to get our programming to students who don’t have many opportunities to see live theatre or to engage in the arts, OSF partners with twelve schools in Oregon, who are in need. The goal is to keep actor/teachers in each school long enough to reach every student there. Wayne and I were in residence with every partnership school for up to a week, so this first depressing day wasn’t it for us – we still had time.
The second day got better, and by Day 3 or 4, we had them. The kids had seen our shows, laughed at our antics. They loved our version of Hermia and Helena’s catfight from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, young women loved seeing me wield a sword as Edgar in King Lear, Kate and Petruchio’s fiery banter and physical relationship got them laughing. The shows opened them up to ask us questions about how we grew up and found jobs in the theatre. I think it helped them to hear that our backgrounds weren’t so different from theirs. Then, their curiosity came into the classroom. Suddenly they were up on their feet, trying, working, and learning. The exhaustion from Day 1 dissolved. When given the chance to hurl a list of insults, like Kent to Oswald in King Lear, they took it, shouting Shakespearian curse-words to the universe and letting the pure act of doing teach them what it all meant. And then it would happen, the rock star moment. We’d finish a workshop and ask the group, “What did you learn today?” and some wonderful kid would say, “I learned that I get it. I didn’t think I did, but I do. Shakespeare’s not that hard. And I think I like it.”
There it was: Mission Accomplished. It just took a little longer at these schools, but I think that’s because they needed it more.