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Epic Theatre Ensemble brings joy of theater to classrooms

JASMIN K. WILLIAMS Amsterdam News Staff | 5/23/2013, 3:43 p.m.

Fifteen-year-old Kayla Bennett of the Bronx loves Shakespeare and admits that her friends encouraged her to go into acting because she's a natural drama queen. "I really started liking it so much. I played the nurse [in 'Romeo and Juliet']. I found Juliet dead. It was pretty awesome," she said.

Bennett also likes "Hamlet," "Henry VI" and "Richard III." Why Shakespeare?

"I like it because it's not easy. It's not regular words. You have to look inside the text and really understand it and break it down. Once you know what he's saying, you know what to do onstage. Because it's a challenge to do so, that's why I like it so much," she said. Bennett will be appearing in a later production of "Henry VI."

Teaching artist Godfrey Simmons Jr. works with Epic on Shakespeare productions and Shakespeare Remix, one of Epic's flagships programs.

"Epic feels that working with young people on Shakespeare, parsing out the language, understanding the language and using that language within the context of their own lives is very important to understanding themselves--understanding the world while at the same time broadening their experience, broadening their vocabulary, being able to take the words that somebody else has written in heightened language and be able to speak that in front of people, we feel is crucial to their development as young people," Simmons told the AmNews.

"Teaching artists who are in the play come in and work with the students, help them learn the language, teach them the backstory and then they come in and see the play. They have a different experience. They have the backstory. Experiential learning is the way to go with Shakespeare," he said.

Getting kids to appreciate theater--especially Shakespeare--is not an easy task.

"The first thing is to get over 'Man, this is whack.' First, it's the fear: 'This is something foreign to me.' There's the immediate thing of wanting to opt out. Once you get past that, then there's getting past the challenges with language. There are a good percentage of students in New York City who are not reading at their proper grade level for reasons that have nothing to do with the student but have to do with their circumstances. We're using Shakespeare to raise their reading level.

"Once they begin to understand what's happening in the play and what the story is, they begin to understand what's actually being said on the page. They begin to broaden their vocabulary and they begin to be able to talk about how what's going on in Verona in the 15th century affects them right now. Once those things come together, they'll have that forever," Simmons concluded.

To learn more about the award-winning Epic Theatre Ensemble, visit epictheatreensemble.org.