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Shakespeare goes to summer camp before hitting the 'Streets'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 5, 2013: A businesswoman and a doctor, childhood friends, are torn apart by an imagined affair. There’s an L.A. party, a hit man, a bloody knife, an escape to Alabama, and finally, redemption. Sound like Shakespeare to you?

While some details portray a world beyond the Bard’s time, the basic plot and themes are straight from his quill pen. Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” inspired this adaptation by young teenagers at the Adams Park location of the local Boys and Girls Clubs.

“The Winter’s Tale” was chosen for Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis’ second annual “Shakespeare in the Streets” (SITS). The Grove area, along Manchester between Kingshighway and Vandeventer, is the setting for the play to be performed Sept. 19-21. Saint Louis University assistant theater professor Nancy Bell is writing SITS’ stage version of “Tale” to reflect life in The Grove.

Bell’s rendition will certainly depart from the Boys and Girls Clubs kids’ story of Mia, who's dating Max, and Paula, who literally falls into Max's arms. It will also differ from Shakespeare’s original in which King Leontes believes the pregnant Queen Hermione is cheating on him with King Polixenes. But at the heart of each one -- besides a love triangle -- is an overarching motif, according to Bell.

“The play is all about forgiveness and redemption, and that it is possible to forgive and have some sort of reconciliation no matter what has happened between people,” Bell said.

On board with the Bard

The Boys and Girls Club camp is part of SITS’ education outreach, added to the program this year. The club's $25 membership fee provides a dozen 13, 14 and 15-year-olds three weeks of Shakespeare immersion, courtesy of Shakespeare Festival. Their futuristic take on “The Winter’s Tale” is in keeping with the larger camp theme: “What will life be like 100 years from now?”

They’re learning, of course, but the main goal is to have a good time, according to Shakespeare Festival education director Chris Limber.

“We want to get kids interested in Shakespeare, but summer camp should be lots of fun,” Limber said.

There was no shortage of fun on a recent morning of camp that began with a series of theater games under the direction of instructor Dan Kelly. After warming up with a nonsense-word and clapping game of Zip, Zap, Zop, campers transitioned into an alphabet activity, in which, for example, the teen whose turn fell on “D” chose “dance” and made some quick moves across the floor. Next up was a game of “What can you make from a milk crate?” with choices ranging from a diving board to an astronaut helmet.

During our visit in week two of the three-week program, the kids seemed very much on board with the Bard. Boys and Girls Club Program director Renee Bell said their enthusiasm came quickly.

“When they were first told they had to do Shakespeare, they’re like, ‘Oh no, are they going to make us work for summer camp?’ But by day two, they were hooked,” she said.

The SITS program has brought out the leadership abilities of those who had potential but no experience, and coaxed shyer teens out of their shells.

“We’ve had kids who normally don’t ever speak up who’ve been club members for years who are participating in this and are having a wonderful time,” Renee Bell said.

The kids ‘get it’

Halfway through the morning, SITS playwright Nancy Bell and her daughter Ivy joined the group to talk about the kids’ 10-minute play, “Seasons of Jealousy,” which can now be seen in a YouTube video. As the teenage campers sat and lounged on the floor of the dance-studio classroom, Bell encouraged them to explore the play’s deeper issues.

“What are you trying to say about jealousy?” she asked.

“That you should try and dig deeper into a situation instead of just judging it,” one camper replied. “That you should never let anything come between you and your friend,” another offered.

The campers’ decision to focus their play on two friends is in keeping with the teen mindset, Bell said.

“‘The Winter’s Tale’ is very much about traditional jealousy between a man and a woman. But they’ve recast the important relationship between the king and queen as two women, as friends, and that’s very typical of that age,” Bell said.

As Bell writes her own play, whose name has not yet been released, she’s looking far beyond the problems of any one relationship.

“I am trying to make the connection to the history of St. Louis and the groups of people who have hurt each other,” Bell said. “And also to what is possible and necessary to move forward as a city, a nation and a human race.”

And while such themes may seem “high falutin” -- Bell's words -- they’re not above the sophistication level of these young teenagers, many of whom plan to audition for The Grove production.

“The kids absolutely get it,” Bell said. “They get it more than we do.”

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