Author: Alan Prendergast

WESTWORD: Zounds! Anti-Bullying Project Gets Boost From Bard, NEA

A Boulder-based program that brings performances of Shakespeare plays into Colorado schools as part of an anti-bullying program has received a $25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and Arts Midwest.

The Shakespeare & Violence Prevention project, a pioneering partnership between the Colorado Shakespeare Festival and the University of Colorado’s Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, is funded by a mix of grants, university funds and fees from the hosting schools. Since it began in 2011, with an anti-bullying interpretation of Twelfth Night, the program has been seen by more than 83,000 middle and high school students. The NEA grant will allow even further roaming of the Bard’s players; the upcoming season offers performances of Julius Caesar, followed by classroom workshops designed to help students practice intervention strategies for squashing bullying in their schools.

“This school tour is a crucial component of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival as a whole, and it is the first exposure to Shakespeare for many communities across our state,” CSF producing artistic director Timothy Orr noted in a statement announcing the grant. “The [program] was developed to to inspire young audiences throughout the state, not just audiences with easy access to our home stage in Boulder.”

As I noted in a 2013 feature about the project, the combination of Shakespeare and anti-bullying messages doesn’t come easily. But in CSF’s hands, the project has gone places. Here’s an excerpt from that article, dealing with what I learned while reporting on the 2013 workshops revolving around The Tempest:

Using Shakespeare to promote non-violence may seem to make about as much sense as inviting Quentin Tarantino to script an anti-profanity film. You can’t poke around the Bard of Avon’s work without encountering an elaborate pipeline of mayhem, the blood running hot and cold, coursing through a labyrinth of swordplay, assassinations, suicides, blindings, beheadings, mutilations, random cruelties — and one memorable dinner party in which an empress is served the flesh of her two sons, baked in a meat pie. But the project’s backers say that focusing on what Shakespeare has to say about the virtues of restraint and compassion — whether in dealing with a prank that gets out of hand, as in Twelfth Night, or Prospero’s decision to renounce his revenge — has generated encouraging and sometimes surprising results.

“When we meet with educators about bullying and violence, we talk about risk factors and evidence-based programs,” notes Beverly Kingston, director of the CSPV. “It’s all this research language. But the theater really brings it to life; Shakespeare cuts through the jargon and gets to the heart of what’s going on. I see the play as a way to engage a school around these topics. We think of it as part of an overall effort to improve school climate.”

Amanda Giguere, literary manager for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, says her troupe’s mission and that of the CSPV are meshing more closely than either group anticipated. “Kids know intuitively that they want to be in a school environment where it’s safe for them to learn, where they can be themselves,” she says. “The more programs that talk about that, the more it becomes acceptable and cool not to support bullying. And from our perspective, this is giving them another reason to love Shakespeare.”