The traveling Nebraska Shakespeare cast

The traveling Nebraska Shakespeare cast includes (from left) Ashley Spessard, Matt Olsen, Josh Ryan (foreground), Katie Becker-Colon, Bianca Phipps (foreground), Chloe Armao and Vincent Carlson-Brown.

PHOTO COURTESY OF NEBRASKA SHAKESPEARE

Students at Lincoln Public Schools were treated to live Shakespeare performances in October. The group performed Oct. 11 to a Lincoln science focus group, Oct. 13 at Lincoln High, Oct. 24 at Lincoln North Star (performance and workshop) and Oct. 25 at Lincoln Southwest.

Every year, a group of artists sets off across Nebraska to tackle a daunting task – to bring Shakespeare to thousands of students in dozens of schools and venues in a diverse array of communities.

For six weeks, this group of just nine (seven actors, a director and a stage manager) wears all the hats. They construct and break down the set in each new venue, perform the show and teach workshops on acting, Shakespeare, stage combat and more. In 2017, Nebraska Shakespeare performed “Romeo and Juliet” 45 times in communities from Omaha to Ord, Lincoln to Lexington and Humboldt to Hemingford.

It’s a particular challenge for director Sarah Carlson-Brown, who is in her 16th year with Nebraska Shakespeare. In addition to directing the show, she’s responsible for adapting the script to make the production both portable and accessible to students. She cut what would normally be a play that runs close to three hours into a tight 70-minute production, and set it in a futuristic dystopian society loosely based on the novel “Station 11.” She did this with the knowledge that many of the students they’d be performing for were not only unfamiliar with Shakespeare, but may never have seen a play before.

“We worked really hard to give them not only the story but also an interesting theatrical experience ... so kind of challenge them in what they’re seeing visually as well as plot points of the story,” Carlson-Brown said. “What I’m really excited about is that I decided to do this play in a Brechtian style, so all of the actors remain on stage the whole time. The students get to see the costume changes, props are handed off, things like that. I think that’s something a lot of these kids haven’t been exposed to, but they totally buy into it and they’re really engaged with it.”

Education features prominently in Nebraska Shakespeare’s mission, and in every performance of “Romeo and Juliet.” Teachers are provided with study guides to get students ready for the show they’re about to experience, and most performances include talk-backs and workshops afterward. Carlson-Brown says she’s fascinated by the types of questions students have and the discussions that follow.

“They ask a lot of questions about the text, especially,” she said. “We have a few female actors that are playing male roles, so they want to know about that. The portrayal of Juliet in this version is strong and smart and aggressive, and they’re interested in [why that is]. There are also a lot of weapons in the show, because I really wanted to put emphasis on the violence of this world. Shakespeare’s so fascinating because it can still be relatable 400 years later. This feud and this cyclical violence that you see in Romeo and Juliet is still prevalent in our society, and these kids are really aware of it.”

Ultimately, Carlson-Brown hopes that students take away a sense that “the magic of theater can be made anywhere.” But she also hopes they see the connection of Shakespeare’s message to their lives today.

“No matter how bad things get, no matter how out of control your life may feel, you don’t need to act immediately,” she explained. “If one character [in Romeo and Juliet] took a moment and thought about how their actions would affect their community or how it would affect their loved ones, it would end really differently.”

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