Shakespeare rolls down the window on today's world

Shakespeare in the Parking Lot

Photos from DCPA Education’s ‘Shakespeare in the Parking Lot’ program over the past three years, most recently a visit to University Schools in Greeley. To see more, click the forward arrow on the image above. Photos by McKenzie Kielman and John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

How presenting Shakespeare in a pick-up truck
rolls down the window on everyday issues for students 

By McKenzie Kielman
For the DCPA NewsCenter

“What light through yonder window breaks?” 

If you are Stuart Barr and Max McEwen, abosutely none. For the DCPA Education crew to arrive in Greeley on time, the equipment must be loaded onto a truck before the sun rises. On this Tuesday morning, that’s 4:30 a.m. Pitch dark.

Traveling to high schools across Colorado, DCPA teaching artists perform abridged versions of Shakespeare plays for a popular education program called Shakespeare in the Parking Lot. The next day, the actors conduct classroom workshops to help students make the connection between the play its current-day relevance in their own lives.

Stuart BarrThere would be no Shakespeare in any parking lot without the early morning prep work undertaken by Barr, the DCPA Education’s Technical Director, and McEwen, his Assistant Technical Director. They meet in the pre-dawn dark at the downtown warehouse where the equipment is stored, but they have devised a methodical system to load their rig under the helpful aid of a nearby streetlight. The main set piece going along for the ride is an old, white 1980 Ford F-250 Farm Truck. It’s a beat-up contraption with a crystal door handle to accessorize the gearshift. But it has no mirrors, license plates or other legalities necessary to be road-ready.

In fact, the truck has been known to have a mind of its own when Barr tries to get the motor to turn over after chilly evenings. The gas pedal will stick, and off they often fly. Surely the Bard’s line, “Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?” has come to Barr’s mind during these moments. The crew jokes that in order for the truck to be the center of a production filled with interesting characters, it had to be a character itself. They call this truck Rosaline – after the poor girl Romeo dumped about two seconds after first seeing Juliet.   

When the truck has been tamed and tethered onto the flatbed, there is a quick double-check of necessary equipment, and then off toward Greeley they go, the Hamilton soundtrack punctuating the crisp morning air.

While the program is called Shakespeare in the Parking Lot, the “parking lot” portion of the title can be interpreted liberally. The location of the actual performance at each school can vary widely depending on the building layout, traffic, noise pollution and weather.

Problems are solved as they come up through trial and error, which at times can be painful. During the program’s pilot run in 2015, Barr found out the hard way that wireless microphones do not work well near metal buildings. So the crew had to completely dismantle the whole staging and reassemble elsewhere. Now it’s more of a well-oiled machine.

Read more: Shakespare in the Parking Lot visits Weld Central

Upon arrival, Barr and McEwen go straight into memorized action. And one of the most important items on their daily checklist is to simply take a moment to enjoy the sunrise. After a brief discussion about its quality of color and a comparison to the numerous others they have experienced together, they go back into work mode. Soon the actors arrive and begin assisting with the equipment and other assigned tasks. 

Shakespeare in the Parking Lot By McKenzie KielmanOnce the stage is set, the equipment operational and the sound check complete, it’s time for fight call. According to union rules, each fight sequence in the performance must be practiced in advance under the supervision of the designated fight captain. Although the actors could by now do these exercises in their sleep – and often do depending on how early their call time is – Fight Captain and actor Jessica Austgen reminds the crew: “Safety first, safety last, safety always.” 

Other performers in this cast of Romeo and Juliet are John Hauser as Romeo, Jenna Moll Reyes as Juliet, with Napoleon M. Douglas, Chloe McLeod, Joelle Montoya and Justin Walvoord playing a variety of supporting roles. Depending on the size of school, the actors can do up to four performances a day, each 45 minutes long, for audiences that at times exceed 200. 

Long days spent together in the parking lot or in the classroom together over an intensive five weeks have fostered close friendships among the crew. Between performances, the group will play Frisbee or occasionally luck out to find the school has, say, a disc golf course. It’s in the downtime this crew has gone from co-workers to comrades.

The sun, if not a curtain, rises

The performance is timed to coincide with a typical high-school class session so as not to disrupt the normal school routine. On this day, the students seem intrigued by the unusual setting of the performance, the fight scenes, the masquerade ball, Shakespeare in the Parking Lotthe love story and Shakespeare’s beguiling words – all happening on and around this broken-down truck.

More than 400 years later, Romeo and Juliet remains steeped in recognizable themes of violence, blind loyalty and the origin of love. As the playwright himself said, “Never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”

While the set and costuming are modernized, it is important to DCPA Education Director Allison Watrous, who conceived this pilot program, that the students hear Shakespeare’s actual, if abbreviated, language.

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

“Oftentimes, the students watching these performances have recently read Romeo and Juliet as part of their preparation for the actors’ visit. Seeing the play performed by professional actors after having read it can be vitally helpful in helping the students comprehend the action and its meaning,” she said.

Romeo and Juliet is a cornerstone of high-school reading curricula all over the country. And reading about a sword fight can certainly be exciting. However, it’s a completely different experience to watch a fully choreographed stage combat scene, let alone one that takes place against the cab of a truck.”

Watrous came up with the idea for Shakespeare in the Parking Lot from seeing newfangled food trucks in action. Performing the play in an environmental setting gives the DCPA an opportunity to engage young audiences in a new way.

“This unique approach breaks out of the physical theatre and directly delivers the show to students in an outdoor, non-traditional playhouse experience that introduces thousands of students across the region to the theatre arts,” Watrous said.

Shakespeare in the Parking Lot By McKenzie Kielman 2
On the second day, the ‘Shakespeare in the Parking Lot’ program moves into the classroom, here at University Schools in Greeley. Photo by McKenzie Kielman

Why don’t you take it inside?

The next day, in this case a Wednesday at University Schools in Greeley, the actors lead students through three workshop activities to foster a discussion about the production and its meaning. They are asked to name a line from the play that sounded familiar to them, a character they related to, a moment in the play that stood out, or perhaps the trickiest question: Did Romeo and Juliet really experience true love? The fictional girl is only 14, after all, and the couple have no shared past. The question, put another way: Do you believe in love at first sight?

With each question, the volume in the classroom grows along with the students’ passionate opinions. “When you know, you know,” one group concludes. Another cluster of students disagrees, saying, “We’re too young to know anything for sure.”

Shakespeare in the Parking Lot By McKenzie Kielman 3For the next segment, the students are asked to register their opinion on a suggested issue by moving to one side of the room or the other, like in a political caucus, to reflect whether they agree or disagree. Taking the middle ground – or being unsure – is not allowed in this exercise. They must take a stand. But as the students begin to defend their positions out loud, they can change sides by moving from one group to the other.

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

An example: “Holding a grudge is a sign of strength.” One student immediately moves to the side indicating that she agrees. When asked to support her position, she giggles and says, “Because I’m petty.” A fellow student disagrees, saying, “It takes more guts to forgive someone.”

More consequentially, the students are asked: “Violence always leads to violence.” One student disagrees. “You shoot someone, they’re dead,” he says. “They can’t do anything.” But DCPA actor John Hauser, who is co-leading this session, plays devil’s advocate by pointing out an example from the performance the day before: Tybalt kills Mercutio, so Romeo kills Tybalt. And in the end, both Romeo and Juliet are dead.

Another student responds with a real-world example by saying simply: “ISIS.”

In a lighter moment, the student are asked whether friends should always come first in every situation, even before significant others. A quieter student sets up the scenario more simply: “Pals before gals.” It’s a moment of welcome levity after such an earnest examination of the play’s issues.

(Story continues below video)

Video: Our visit to Weld Central High School in 2015:

The workshop allowed the students to dig deep into matters that are clearly important to them both at school and at home. The moderators suggested the following talking points, and each sparked meaningful back-and-forth among the students:

  • Loyalty is dangerous
  • The only appropriate punishment for murder is death
  • Parents can never understand what a child feels
  • Going behind someone’s back can be necessary
  • Teenagers have right to privacy no matter what
  • Parents have a right to know a child’s whereabouts at all times
  • Parents own and therefore can regulate any items they have bought for their child

To finish up, the students are presented a “what-if” scenario involving a fictional teenager and her father: A senior in high school, a few months shy of turning 18, has been getting into trouble and is disrespectful to her father. She is breaking curfew and other house rules. Frustrated and concerned, the father would like to gain access to her password-protected cell phone and computer. So he asks his older, adult daughter for her help with the passwords. Should the older sister give them to her father? 

Students immediately dive into arguments on both sides of the issue. As the debate continues, the DCPA moderator adds to the stakes: What if the girl is also coming home with alcohol on her breath, and is possibly experimenting with drugs?

Most of the students remain on the daughter’s side: “People need privacy,” says one. “Strict parents make for sneaky children,” offers another.

Others sympathize with where the father is coming from. “What if she’s getting into illegal stuff?” one asks. “If you are not doing anything bad, there would be nothing to hide,” opines another.

Check out the Shakespeare in the Parking Lot home page

There is one classroom consensus – that a direct, one-on-one conversation between the father and younger daughter is in order.

From the start of one normal class period to the end, these students have gone from being quiet and impartial to conversational and assertive. DCPA actor Justin Walvoord later says the point of the workshop wasn’t to change the students’ minds about any particular issue. It was to empower them to be opinionated, and also to more thoughtfully consider and respect the opinions of people they don’t necessarily agree with. 

In its first two years, more than 15,000 students have participated in Shakespeare in the Parking Lot. The program returns on April 3 and runs through May 12 – one week longer than originally scheduled to accommodate demand. Participating schools can now choose between Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The bottom line, Barr said, is that Shakespeare in the Parking Lot “is a touring production that introduces Shakespeare to young people who have never seen a play before with a group of very hard-working professional performers who have become a tightly knit group of friends,” he said. 

“And seeing some beautiful Colorado sunrises!”

McKenzie Kielman is a sophomore at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, and an intern for the DCPA NewsCenter.

Shakespeare in the Parking Lot is made possible by a grant from Anadarko

Selected previous coverage of Shakespeare in the Parking Lot
Shakespeare in the Parking Lot brings Bard to life at Weld Central High
2015 True West Award: Rosaline the 1980 Ford F-250 Farm Truck
The Shakespeare in the Parking Lot home page

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