On a brisk April morning, 4,500 students, educators, volunteers, family and friends filled downtown Denver. Passersby were overheard asking, “Is there a parade?” And, the answer was “yes,” but not just any parade. It was the fanfare that preceded the 39th annual Denver Public Schools Shakespeare Festival, which kicked off with remarks in Skyline Park followed by a short shoulder-to-shoulder (or perhaps more appropriately, ruff to ruff) march down Arapahoe Street to the Denver Performing Arts Complex.
More than 71 schools representing five school districts and all ages gathered to perform, celebrate and honor the works of William Shakespeare at the largest youth Shakespeare festival in the world.
“Students across metro Denver are here celebrating theatre in our community,” said Allison Watrous, Executive Director of DCPA Education & Community Engagement. “We’re so grateful to partner with Denver Public Schools and Denver Public Schools Foundation to produce the full festival.”
While a full producing partner since 2015, the DCPA has actively supported the Shakespeare Festival for decades, providing preparatory in-school workshops for students and educators.
“We have teaching artists from the Denver Center who do workshops that help prepare scenes, stage combat, and the cutting of the language. Then we have a team of teaching artists that does the preview auditions to make sure that everybody’s set to come. We see the scene and say, ‘Great. Fantastic. Think of these three things as you continue the rehearsal process.’”
Preparing for the Shakespeare Festival is different at each school. Following budget cuts at Skinner Middle School, the educators and students formed an afterschool club. “Kids get the opportunity where they don’t normally in classes to express themselves,” explained teacher Jen Jones. “It’s a way for kids who are having problems to express themselves and work through those issues and to find other people who are like them or very different from them and learn from that.… There’s just so much for kids to explore.”
“It’s a way to break out of your shell and it’s a fun after-school activity,” echoed Annie, a seventh grade student who served as Skinner’s Assistant Director. “The second you join acting you get 20 new friends.”
Classmates and fellow Skinner actors Adrianna and Josie agreed. When asked what they would say to convince someone to participate in the Festival, they had a common word. “It’s really fun and interesting to be around and see the different plays and cultures. It’s just an open, positive, connecting community,” said seventh grader Andrianna. “You get to hang out with a bunch of random people who don’t look at you weird because you’re just talking to a random stranger. You get to make jokes. You get to have fun,” added sixth-grade Josie.
Contributing to the festivities this year were three new additions to the day. The Denver Public Library and Boulder-based Colorado Shakespeare Festival joined the DCPA’s Shakespeare in the Parking Lot troupe to broaden community participation. Additionally, in order to improve accessibility, Phamaly Theatre Company led workshops for students with special needs.
“We have talked about diversity for years,” said Sam Wood, DCPA Program Manager and District Liaison. “This year, we have five schools with groups of students with autism. We’re going to do three workshops for them and they’ll also be performing.”
In addition to having a good time, students gain and strengthen skills that are critical for academic and personal success. “They learn confidence — that’s the major one,” said Wood. “But they also learn friendship and cooperation and all those soft skills that make a kid successful.”
“They learn how to take apart a text and make sense of something that might not make sense to them at first,” added Lisa Bornstein, Polaris Elementary School math teacher who assists music and drama instructor Corrilee Kielmeyer in preparing their students for the Festival. “They learn a lot of advanced literary techniques at a much younger age than would normally happen, and they also learn about some of the basics of theatre…. The excitement and the growth and maturity of students is really phenomenal through doing this program.”
Watrous added: “It’s all about presence, feeling collaborative, using your critical thinking skills to dive into that story and really looks at humanity with empathy and step into the shoes of a character’s journey to learn more about how we relate to each other, how we can take care of each other and how we can all come together as a community.”
Perhaps the most poignant and important lesson these kids learned was one of self-worth. When the Skinner Middle School students took their bow, they chanted: “I love myself. I really, really love myself.”
And when their teacher, Jen Jones, gave them a post-show congratulatory speech, she yelled:
“Did you have fun?” YES!
“Did you get better?” YES!
“Do you want to do it again?” YES!!!
Watch the video recap of the DPS Shakespeare Festival below!