All this week, from March 12 through March 16, a three-member team of theatrical education practitioners from Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre has been circulating through the classrooms and theaters of the Santa Barbara Unified School District. Thanks to the Léni Fé Bland Performing Arts Partnership, the Santa Barbara Education Foundation, and The Squire Foundation, Joanne Howarth, Samuel Oatley, and Emmeline Prior are on a mission, traveling to seven schools and working with 25 teachers, all in an attempt to help more than 1,000 9th graders get greater enjoyment out of the most frequently assigned English literature text in the history of high school: Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. From “you kiss by the book” to “what’s in a name?” and, inevitably, “parting is such sweet sorrow,” these actor/educators have taken students through the play’s deep thicket of familiar quotes in pursuit of a more profound understanding and increased comprehension of what is for many young people a singularly challenging experience.
The inspiration for this timely intervention came from Sara Miller McCune, who wished to honor her dear friend Léni Fé Bland in a way that would have pleased the late philanthropist and patron of the performing arts. In addition to supporting the learning objectives of Dos Pueblos High, Santa Barbara High, San Marcos High, La Colina Junior High, Goleta Valley Junior High, Santa Barbara Junior High, and Washington Elementary, the program prepares this young and impressionable audience for a performing arts treat that’s coming their way in less than two weeks, when State Street Ballet (SSB) will present Rodney Gustafson’s acclaimed ballet version of the classic Shakespearean love story.
Streamlined from five acts to two, but with the core of Sergei Prokofiev’s excellent score intact, the SSB’s Romeo and Juliet comes to the Lobero for two performances — on Friday, March 23, at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday, March 24, at 2 p.m. There’s an interesting added incentive that might lure Disney-loving students to the performances and that everyone should know about. Aaron Smyth, the performer who will dance the role of Romeo opposite SSB company dancer Deise Mendonça’s Juliet, has just completed filming the role of the Snow Cavalier in Disney’s fall 2018 blockbuster The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. Smyth, who was most recently seen here as Basilio in State Street’s 2016 production of Don Quixote, is as charismatic as they come and should make a good partner for the fabulous Misty Copeland in the Disney Nutcracker film. In the meantime, Santa Barbara can plan to see him up close and in the flesh as everybody’s ideal of a romantic boyfriend, Romeo.
When they have not been crashing 9th-grade English classrooms to deliver Shakespeare’s wisdom in gloriously authentic accents, the trio of practitioners has kept quite busy. Their schedule included a Monday-evening professional development workshop for 25 public school teachers and monologue coaching for junior high students who are learning how to audition. The Squire Foundation has kept the crew housed and fed in style at its Via Maria headquarters, and the students have contributed their inimitable combination of enthusiasm and irreverence. Here’s an example of the latter, drawn from comments written by 6th graders at Washington School after last year’s visit about Macbeth: “I wish we could have something like that again!” wrote Beck, adding that “the only thing is that the part where Macbeth’s head got cut off and stuck on a spike was a little violent I’d say. But besides that, everything was amazing and great!”