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Author: Jill Kimball

All-female Shakespeare play teaches students about violence prevention

Could the powerful words of William Shakespeare end violence in schools?

For five years, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival and the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence have come together to find out.

Since 2011, the two groups have worked together to present annual school tours, where CSF actors perform a truncated Shakespeare play and lead workshops to discuss bullying, violence and unhealthy relationships in the Bard’s writing. The program has attracted national attention.

“The actors teach the students about things they can do to prevent bullying in schools and create a healthier climate,” says Laurie Keith, who works for CSPV. “They use theater games and role-playing to help get across some of these really important messages.”

This spring, three actors rehearse and present a Wild West-themed “Taming of the Shrew,” the classic comedy about a man named Petruchio who persuades a stubborn, irritable Kate to marry him and learns a few things about himself in the process. But Keith, who serves as the show’s director, wanted to put a unique spin on it.

“In the past, we’ve always done productions with men and women,” she says. “This year, we decided to cast all females. We were excited to look at how a woman playing Petruchio could possibly change the dynamic of the relationship between Petruchio and Kate.”

Keith says the all-female school production aligns well with CSF’s 2016 season, which focuses heavily on women’s perspective. This summer, two plays in the festival will feature women playing traditionally male lead roles. The gender swap led to near-perfect male-female parity in this season’s ensemble cast.

“We’ve realized there were a lot of great parallels between our gender bending and the festival’s gender swap,” Keith says. “Back in Shakespeare’s time, the plays were performed by men, even when the characters were women. I thought, how interesting it would be if we flipped it so that we gave women the opportunity to play both women and men.”

While it’s clear that the three actors, each of whom take on a male role at some point in the performance, are indeed playing men, the fact that they’re female “does help to soften the relationships between genders and change the relationships a little bit,” Keith says. “It invites us to look a little more at gender and peer relationships in today’s world.”

In a traditional “Taming of the Shrew” performance, audiences will walk away believing Petruchio has “tamed” Kate. But when Petruchio is played by a woman, Keith says, audiences might start to wonder whether Kate has in turn tamed Petruchio.

“Kate and Petruchio are two people who have behaved badly their whole lives, acting as bullies toward other people, toward siblings,” Keith says. “And yet, by the end, they both have learned how to be nice and have a healthy relationship. So we hope that’ll lead to kids asking, ‘How can we stop bullying each other and become more of a team?’”

The violence prevention campaign doesn’t end after the workshop. CSPV works with an organization called Safe2Tell, an anonymous tip line for youth who see or experience violent behavior, to measure the effectiveness of their Shakespearean campaigns.

Thanks to Safe2Tell, Keith can proudly proclaim their school visits seem to be working.

She says, “We’ve been able to see that the schools we visit are the schools whose students have logged more Safe2Tell calls over the course of a school year.”

For more information on CSF in the Schools, visit this page. To find out about CSF’s summer camps, including Shakespeare’s Sprites and Camp Shakespeare, visit this page.