Guest Blogger: Clayton Stromberger Brings Shakespeare to Free Minds

As coordinator of the UT Shakespeare at Winedale Outreach program, my job is to bring the “Shakespeare at Winedale approach” — active, playful ensemble performance based on a close analysis of the text — to upper-elementary classrooms around Central Texas. Our primary focus is on students in low-income or disadvantaged communities, and our aim is to give these students a boost as they head into middle school and high school.

For the past few years I have been equally privileged to work with Free Minds students, and these sessions have become among the annual highlights of my teaching year.

At the start of these sessions, I can sense the class’s wariness: Is this going to be embarrassing? How can I act out these words, when they are such a challenge to read and understand? So while I always tell my fifth grade students I’m going to treat them like college kids, I tell Free Minds students the reverse: “I hope you will forgive me for treating you like fifth graders!” So we start with a fun clapping chant that soon has everyone laughing and loosening up.

Then we play the play, one moment at a time, using volunteers. And it never fails — a “regular Free Minds student” is transformed before our eyes to Puck the mischievous sprite, or the jealous raging Leontes, or the snarling Caliban, depending on which play the visiting Actors from the London Stage are presenting on tour that fall. In the end, a few moments have come to vivid life. It’s a wonderful thing to see, just as it is with the kids — the joy of the performer and the astonishment of her classmates as she realizes, “I’m getting this, and I’m kinda good at it!”

Two nights later, the students sit and watch five amazing British actors perform the same play — and it never fails that already, after one session, the Free Minds students feel a bit possessive about “their” roles: “I thought Patty was a better Prospero!” It is a real privilege to see students find their own voice through Shakespeare’s “so potent art,” to quote Prospero from The Tempest.

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