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The Arts

Bringing the Bard to Brattleboro

Madison-based Young Shakespeare Project opens first satellite company in southern Vermont

BRATTLEBORO—When people move from a beloved town, they often are filled with regret about what they have to leave behind: their house, a favorite store, or a park.

But when Suzanne Rubinstein had to leave Madison, Wis., because her husband was taking a job at Marlboro College in Vermont, she had one overriding thought, “I can’t leave Madison without YSP.”

So she took it with her.

The Young Shakespeare Players (YSP) is a nationally acclaimed youth classical theater that was created in Madison by psychotherapists Richard and Anne DiPrima in 1980. Youth from ages 7 to 18 are invited to learn about and perform in the works of Shakespeare through a program designed to show its participants (and their families and the community) that the classical theater is not dull or above them, but delightful, accessible, and fun.

With the blessings of its founders, Rubenstein is now opening YSP’s first branch outside Madison. YSP East-New England (as the satellite is named) is committed to the mission and values of the original YSP.

Using the same materials and methods, it hopes to inspire young people in southern Vermont to fall in love with the works of Shakespeare, as participants learn to appreciate both the language and the drama in these great works.

This fall in Brattleboro, The Young Shakespeare Players will present young people performing 12 great scenes from Shakespeare in Touches of Sweet Harmony: Comedy, Tragedy and Romance in Shakespeare. All performances and rehearsals will take place at the Hooker-Dunham Theater, with both matinee and evening public performances on Nov. 3 and 4 free and open to the public.

More than 30 years ago, The Young Shakespeare Players began in Wisconsin by the DiPrimas as a backyard summer project involving 15 young people doing one full-length Shakespeare play each summer.

The DiPrimas had a background in child development psychology. Rubinstein says, “When Richard began a practice on the South Side of Chicago, he came to understand that young people have a strong emotional world, but lack the language to express it. Richard, who is also a Shakespeare scholar, began to contemplate the possibility of theater as means to articulate these feelings.”

For some years, the program remained small, rehearsals were held in donated space, and performances took place in public parks. By 2010, however, YSP had not only secured its very own theatrical space but also developed the instructional and performance materials for 16 full plays of Shakespeare, as well as major workshop scenes or segments from another 12 of his plays, and 13 plays by George Bernard Shaw.

Rubenstein first connected with YSP in Madison six years ago, when her then 6-year-old daughter, Mia, began working with the group.

As she looked over the material Mia brought home to help her understand the Shakespeare play in which she was performing, Rubenstein became excited by what she saw in the philosophy of the organization, which led to her more active involvement and a deep commitment to YSP.

“After my years of working with YSP in Madison, Richard and Anne developed trust in me,” Rubenstein says. “They know I understand fully what their mission is all about. In fact, Richard and Anne are coming here to Brattleboro to help oversee the last half of the fall program, right up to dress rehearsals and staged performances.”

No small parts

Rubenstein says that at YSP, there are no auditions or rejections.

“Every person who participates receives substantial speaking roles,” she said. “Also, YSP is committed to the principle that no one should be excluded from participation because of the costs of tuition, so we offer special scholarships for those who cannot afford it. The final performances are always open to the general public admission-free, offering an affordable cultural and creative experience to participants and audience members.”

Because the YSP mission is to help “young people find a voice through understanding and performing classical theater,” the program’s core is built on the complete understanding of the material that young actors memorize and perform. This understanding occurs through YSP’s unique instructional materials and methods.

“YSP is more than just a theatrical program,” Rubenstein says. “It is also a language immersion program. Our focus is on character and language. Participants are provided with audio CDs which explain the language in the Shakespeare work they are to perform, line by line, word by word, so that they understand what is going on in a complete way. The explanation CD does not tell them how to talk or act. But through a thorough understanding of Shakespeare’s work, they are given freedom to develop their own characters, to find their voice.”

Actors also learn to appreciate the technical aspects of acting and stagecraft. YSP fully incorporates everyone in every phase of production: rehearsing, directing, memorizing, and providing technical support such as make-up and stage management. YSP furthers the emotional development of young people, organizers say, and provides them a community in which service and volunteerism is essential to the organization’s viability.

“For instance, when Cast One works on performance, Cast Two will be working backstage on technical aspects like lighting or costumes,” Rubenstein says. “The opposite then happens, and Cast Two works on performances and Cast One on backstage.”

She says that the fall program in Brattleboro, which began last week, is nine weeks long. Participants meet on Wednesdays from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m., and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m.

“These are quite long hours,” she says. “It may be unusual to take up so much time with rehearsals, but we feel the need to do so in order to honor the method and process.”

Suzanne’s daughter Mia, now 12, says that even with six years of YSP experience, it remains a challenge.

“I won’t lie and say it was not challenging, but it also was the most fun I ever had,” Mia says. “By the end of each production I’ve done, you memorize the whole play subconsciously. It is refreshing to learn Shakespeare around like-minded people and not to be called a nerd.”

Rubenstein agrees that YSP asks a lot of young people, but she also believes that “too often in our society we minimize achievement. We simplify things, refusing to set a high standard.”

Rubinstein wants to emphasize that, more than just a theatrical or language immersion program, YSP is deeply concerned with their participants’ personal development.

“You know a lot of people are into YSP for other reasons than theater, such as developing their love of history or literature. Here, students really do become scholars of sorts, because they really know the work, certainly as well as I do,” she says.

“Most importantly, we provide a space where young people can learn to find their own voice. I can not overstate the importance that our program is non-competitive. Here, our participants learn to critique each other in a way that is both kind and positive.”

Rubenstein says the wide age range of participants helps older students mentor the younger ones.

As the Madison group expands, Rubenstein says she would like to see other satellites emerge.

“This Vermont project will become a kind of example, and the goal is to have YSP satellites all over the country,” says Rubenstein. “I think it is an honor to our community that Brattleboro has been chosen to test out this incredible program.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #169 (Wednesday, September 12, 2012).

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