Hurlyburly of nation's largest student Shakespeare Festival returns Friday

Our video report from the 2015 DPS Shakespeare Festival, which was considerably sunnier than last year’s event. Video by David Lenk and John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

In Shakespeare’s world, clothes make the man. Here’s how they will make (but not break) 5,000 Denver students on Friday.

By John Moore
DCPA Senior Arts Journalist

Friday’s 33rd annual Denver Public Schools Shakespeare Festival is expected to draw 5,000 students in adorable Shakespearean garb to perform more than 600 scenes and sonnets in theatres and tents and crannies all around the Denver Performing Arts Complex. Which, when you think about it, is a whole lot of Shakespearean garb. And garb ain’t cheap.

But it can be.

2016 DPS Shakespeare FestivalIn these tight times, some schools provide teachers with modest funding for the semester-long classroom project, culminating in the oldest and largest student Shakespeare festival in the country. And for this festival, bona fide costumes are mandatory. Over the years, some DPS teachers have been known to dip into their own pockets to help the costume cause, while others have simply had to go it alone.

Steele Elementary School teacher Lane Miller is grateful not to be among them. He’s rallied an entire village of students, parents, school-district officials and members of the DCPA Education staff to help his students prepare for Friday’s festivities.

“I really haven’t ever raised money for the festival,” said Miller. “I think one thing DPS teachers need to know is where you can get the help you need. I have a key parent who orders T-shirts, occasionally helps with rehearsals, created our signs and helps with logistics at the festival.”

Miller also called the DCPA for help with costume tips on a limited budget, and Costume Design Associate Meghan Anderson Doyle and At-Risk Coordinator Rachel Taylor responded by fashioning a free “Costuming on the Cheap” workshop at Steele Elementary that was attended by 160 parents and students on Feb. 23. The DCPA staffers got the children thinking about how you can spark costume creativity just by grabbing an old T-Shirt.

“The goal of the workshop was to reinvent contemporary clothes from your closet or the thrift store as costumes that can help the students tell their stories,” said Doyle. “We wanted to make the experience kid-centered and the costumes kid-created without breaking the bank.”

DPS Shakespeare Festival 2016
The 2015 DPS Shakespeare Festival parade from the 16th Street Mall to the Denver Performing Arts Complex.  Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

Taylor and Doyle eased the potential intimidation of students and parents finding or crafting Shakespearean costumes by removing sewing from the equation altogether. “We made ruffs out of coffee filters, doublets out of T-Shirts and shoelaces, and togas for Julius Caesar out of pillow cases,” Doyle said.  

DPS Shakespeare Festival QUOTEMiller said the workshop was amazing. He also credited Beau Augustin, the Dance and Theatre Arts Instructional Curriculum Specialist for Denver Public Schools, as well as its district-wide costume department, led by Costume Shop Specialist Jean Benson, for their assistance. DPS houses more than 5,000 costumes in different time periods and styles, all of which are available to teachers who need them for the festival, along with a vast selection of accessories. More than 70 DPS schools participate in the festival each year.

“Jean is the most talented costumer,” Miller said. “I have ordered more then 180 costumes from her for the festival before. This year, I only ordered a measly 80. All of our third-graders will be in costumes supplied by her.

But the responsibility for costumes, and really all things DPS Shakespeare Festival, begins with the students themselves, Miller said. 

“Our fourth- and fifth-graders create their own costumes, research their own characters and block their own scenes,” he said. “You can do it with a lot of help or very little. But knowing and utilizing your resources is key. The help is out there.”

DPS Shakespeare FestivalThis will be the Denver Center’s third year co-presenting the festival with Denver Public Schools. DCPA Education Director Allison Watrous, a past Grand Marshal of the pre-festival parade, thinks the entire experience is an opportunity for the students to take pride in all they have invested in the project.

“These schools have been working really hard on their scenes for months, and so the festival becomes a day of celebration,” Watrous said. “They have gone through an audition process; they have memorized their lines; they have created their costumes. And now they get to walk in the parade through downtown Denver. You can feel the excitement from the moment they come off the school bus. Then they get to perform on our stages and get adjudicated by experts who provide helpful feedback and awards.

“It is a great day because we are celebrating as individual classes, as individual schools, as the largest school district in the state and we are celebrating as a city. That’s awesome.”

DPS Shakespeare FestivalDPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg says studying Shakespeare in the classroom is itself a rich lesson in literature, culture, language and politics. “But having the opportunity to act in a production of Shakespeare’s works at a world-class venue like the Denver Center takes those lessons a step further,” he said, “giving students a chance to experience the thrill and personal rewards of creative expression, which is such a critical part of a well-rounded education.”

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

33rd Annual Denver Public Schools Shakespeare Festival

  • 10 a.m.: Opening Ceremonies will be held at 15th and Arapahoe streets
  • 10:15 a.m.: All students will join a short parade down the 16th Street Mall to the Denver Performing Arts Complex
  • 10:45 a.m. through 4:15 p.m.: Short performances of sonnets and scenes from the works of Shakespeare, as well as demonstrations of dance, music and songs from Shakespeare’s time.
  • Ages: Kindergarten through high school
  • This year’s theme play: Much Ado About Nothing
  • More information on auditioning, workshops and resources for educators:

Photo gallery: The 2016 DPS Shakespeare Festival:

2016 DPS Shakespeare Festival

Photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter. To see more, click the forward arrow on the image above. Photos may be downloaded and recirculated with source attribution. Click on any photo to download.

Our 2016 DPS Shakespeare Festival coverage

Our 2015 DPS Shakespeare Festival coverage

Our 2014 DPS Shakespeare Festival coverage

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