Currently, I've been working with the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre as an actor for their school tour of Hamlet. The production consists of one production manager and four actors who practically pack the entire show in a minivan and travel to various public schools in the Delaware Valley to perform. With the exception of the cat who plays Hamlet, each actor plays multiple roles (I'm Polonius, Horatio, Laertes, and Rozencrantz.) and the script is cut from its original four hour length to an hour and twenty minutes or so. After each performance we have a brief question-and-answer session with the students, shake a few hands and such, then pack up our stuff to make our way back to the theater.
Today's performance was at a vocational high school here in Philadelphia. When we arrived, we unloaded our stuff and began setting up on the stage in the school's "cafetorium". As we were loading in, much of the student body were finishing their breakfast in the same room, and it was immediately apparent the school was attended by a majority of African-American students.
Now, I am as susceptible to the frailties of human prejudice as anyone else. Not only that, at times I am apprehensive as to how my work will be received by the folks in my own community. I don't think is incredibly stereotypical to say many African-Americans, though politically liberal and progressive, trend towards social conservatism. Therefore, a stigma exists in the black community towards the exploration of performing arts. Many people who do what I do know this whether they like to admit it or not, which is why quality productions of Shakespeare, Chekov, or even August Wilson are a rarity in black communities. (Boy, I'm going to get in a lot of trouble!)
So I'm expecting the worst; disinterest, lack of attention, sleeping, heckling, etc.
WRONG, WRONG, WRONG.
From the very first moment of the show these kids were incredibly engaged, and their energy was palpable. There received every word and had wonderful responses to every action. Many times throughout the show my cast mates and I heard many verbal responses to the events on stage like, "Oh snap! He killed Polonius!" or, "Wow!" and even, "Get 'em Hamlet!"
By the way, for all of you regular theatre goers, most of us actors like these types of responses. Read up on the groundlings that patronized The Globe.
After the show and a wonderfully rambunctious q&a, the kids made their way to the stage to shake hands and take pictures with all of us. And let me tell ya, there's nothing like a 17 year old asking for an autograph to stroke one's ego. It's almost narcotic-like.
As we were leaving the school we were still in disbelief as to how much fun we had performing at 8:30am. We never expected it. And I think we all learned something as well. All people hope for engagement, especially those that may not have ready access to it. I think it's safe to say we walked a little taller today. Days like today are why we do what we do.