Shakespeare Fest: Students put spirit of youth in everything

Above: Video coverage from the 2017 The Denver Public Schools Shakespeare Festival on April 28. Our guests include Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock; DCPA President and CEO Janice Sinden; DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg; teacher Tim Boyle (John F. Kennedy High School); students Amelia Corrada (Denver School for the Arts), Vincent Haney (Denver North High School) and Alexis Ayala (J.F.K). Video by David Lenk and John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter. 


‘Today, we keep the arts alive. Today we triumph
over hatred, over grief and over despair.’

By John Moore
Senior Arts Journalist

Surely no one will compare Friday to a summer’s day. But compared to the bone-chilling festivities of a year ago, the 33rd Denver Public Schools Shakespeare Festival was, in the Bard’s own words, a comfort like sunshine after rain.

2017-dps-shakespeare-festivalDespite a gloomy forecast, the mild weather cooperated just long enough for 5,000 students from kindergarten through high school to perform more than 640 short scenes, dances, soliloquies and sonnets on stages in and around the Denver Performing Arts Complex. The celebration is the largest and oldest student Shakespeare Festival in the country.

Performing in 14 tents, theatres and stairway landings spread out over four acres, students from an estimated 80 schools soliloquized, sang, fenced, danced, played musical instruments, raged and gently wooed – but did not kiss. (Festival rule: High-fives – not smooches!)

2017-dps-shakespeare-festivalDressed in authentic period garb, Mayor Michael B. Hancock told the wee throng that the DPS Shakespeare Festival has become part of the fabric of Denver. “We believe wholeheartedly in arts education,” said Hancock, a graduate of DPS’ Manual High School. “We believe in connecting to our history. We believe in upholding our culture. You are making Denver proud today.”

Most participating DPS teachers have spent the past two months introducing Shakespeare to their students and creating live performances through auditioning, rehearsals, text analysis and costume-building. Studies have shown that studying Shakespeare improves students’ literacy and literary skills, especially in a district like DPS, where more than 50 percent speak English as a second language.

“This experience gives them the opportunity to really dig into Shakespeare’s words and find emotions and character motivations and storylines,” said Jacqueline Smilack, a journalist and fourth-year English teacher at Abraham Lincoln High School. And for those who speak English as a second language, she said, “Shakespeare is the great equalizer. Everyone comes into it on the same page.” A team from Denver School of the Arts presented a scene from Romeo and Juliet with two students performing in English and two others in Spanish.

(Story continues under the photo gallery)

Full photo gallery: 2017 DPS Shakespeare Festival

2017 DPS Shakespeare Festival

To see more photos, click the forward arrow on the image above. All photos by John Moore for the DCPA’s NewsCenter. Photos may be downloaded and shared with credit to the DCPA NewsCenter. 

Alix Gonzalez, 15-year-old sophomore from North High School, performed Friday in her third festival, dating back to middle school. “I love it because it gets me out of my comfort zone,” she said. “Speaking in old English stretches your confidence as an actor because of how big you have to go to do Shakespeare.”

Watch our Facebook Live stream from the parade

Each year, DPS students submit essays for the privilege to play William Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth I in the welcoming ceremonies, and ride at the head of a short parade from the 16th Street Mall to the Denver Performing Arts Complex. This year’s honorees were Denver North High School Senior Vincent Haney and Denver School of the Arts senior Amelia Corrada, who has been accepted into the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Haney said he was speechless and euphoric when he learned he had been selected to speak as The Bard.

Story: Where do those 5,000 costumes come from?

2017-dps-shakespeare-festival“Theatre is the voice of our people,” Haney said as Shakespeare. “And today, our message is as strong as ever. Today, we keep the arts alive. Today we triumph over hatred, over grief and over despair. Today we sing, today we dance, today we act.”

Corrada said Shakespeare remains timely because “the themes of Shakespeare’s plays are the same themes we are living through in our country right now. Through his verse, he exposes us to the very truth and nature of friendship, magic, betrayal, war and even love in all its forms. It’s totally relevant.”

2017-dps-shakespeare-festivalSmilack admitted that Shakespeare can be intimidating for first-time students, and they are not alone. “It can be intimidating for teachers, too,” she said. Because many teachers are not specifically trained in teaching or interpreting the Shakespeare canon, she said, “This exercise gives teachers good perspective on what our students are going through.”

Now in its fourth decade, the DPS Shakespeare Festival’s bloodlines go back for generations. Acclaimed singer and actor Mary Louise Lee (Hancock’s wife), performed in the festival as a student at Thomas Jefferson High School. The First Lady has made restoring arts-education programs in schools her top priority since founding her nonprofit, Bringing Back the Arts. John F. Kennedy High School Drama Director Tim Boyles, who brought a fresh group of festival participants this year, performed in the festival when he himself was a student at JFK.

2017-dps-shakespeare-festivalNot all of the performances on Friday were by students. A team of DCPA Education Teaching Artists presented a 45-minute version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that they perform at schools statewide in and around a beat-up old pickup truck as part of the “Shakespeare in the Parking Lot” program. All costumes and props come from the back of the truck – so, for example, floor mats are used as a wall, and an ice-scraper is used as a sword to depict a suicide.

This is the DCPA’s third year partnering with Denver Public Schools and the DPS Foundation to present the festival. “We provided workshops, we judged auditions, we opened our doors and we offer financial support to 4,000 students from across Denver to participate in this event,” said President and CEO Janice Sinden. “We do that because the DCPA knows arts education improves academic success, produces leaders and cultivates creativity. Plus, it’s fun.”

2017-dps-shakespeare-festivalDance Legend Cleo Parker Robinson, a graduate of the Denver Public Schools who created Cleo Parker Robinson Dance 47 years ago, brought two of her company members to perform a short excerpt from their current offering, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet layered with scenes from George Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess (through May 7 at 119 Park Avenue West.)

“It’s thrilling to see students of all backgrounds and ages be introduced to the magic of theatre in this way,” said Robinson. “Our presence here today is meant to show these young students that Shakespeare can be expressed through the word, through music – and also through the ballet of Prokofiev.”

2017-dps-shakespeare-festivalThe Grand Marshal of this year’s parade was Deputy Director of Denver Arts and Venues Ginger White Brunetti, who heads the city’s Imagine 2020 arts program.

While students were free to perform from any of Shakespeare’s works, this year’s featured title was Much Ado About Nothing. But in the words of DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg, “Today there is going to be much ado about something.” 

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. This is his 16th year covering the DPS Shakespeare Festival.


Our 2017 DPS Shakespeare Festival coverage

Our 2016 DPS Shakespeare Festival coverage

Our 2015 DPS Shakespeare Festival coverage

Our 2014 DPS Shakespeare Festival coverage


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