New York City students have a unique opportunity to use theater to expand their learning experience. The idea that would become the Epic Theater began in 2000. Ron Russell and his wife, Melissa Friedman, rounded up some 30 artists and educators for monthly brainstorming sessions to address a way to successfully marry the professional theater experience with education programs. They thought they were forming an arts service organization while, in fact, what they were really doing was laying the groundwork for a new theater company.

The Epic Theatre Ensemble launched on Sept. 11, 2001, as a company of artists and activists dedicated to creating and using the theater experience within New York public schools to inspire dialogue on social, ethical and political issues, helping students to become critical thinkers. The life-altering events of that day made their mission even more urgent. By October, they were already in 20 classrooms.

“We were the first responders in the arts field,” said Executive Director Ron Russell. We were in there by September 13 working with kids who had been directly affected by 9/11,” he told the AmNews.

The first schools they worked with had been moved out of their classrooms by the attacks. Epic expanded its efforts uptown and into suburban communities where many students had lost parents.

Today, the award-winning theater company reaches 70 classrooms per year, exposing students to the process of creating theater and theater protocol. Students know the artists they see onstage, having worked with them in their classrooms.

“Many of those young people don’t have a chance to be in a theater environment,” Russell said. “If at any point in their lives they have a chance to be part of a civic forum, they’ll know what to expect.

“We push very hard for our students to go to college, specifically four-year colleges, where they can hopefully break out of the cycle of economic depression that many of their communities are gripped in,” he said.

The Greek tragedy “Antigone” was used as a core model. Epic brings an hour-long version to the schools so students can see it done by professional actors. Students then rewrite the play for their time period, keeping with the content of the play, but with an update.

“We’ve had quite a few students go on to be professional actors. Once these students work with Epic for four straight years–they do our in-school program and after-school programs–they are inclined to go to college with an acting degree in mind. Parents who would have objected to that are encouraged to think of it as a viable career path,” Russell said.

More than just an arts program, Epic is engaged in the learning experience of the students, who get to work with professional actors and playwrights.

“We only work with principals who are deeply invested in the role that the arts can play in school change,” Russell said. “We want to be in their English classes helping the kids understand Shakespeare. We want to be in their global history classes. In every classroom that we help, we see big improvements in their regents scores,” he said. “Our goal is arts for school change.”

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.