Roughly once a year (if not more often) my faith in the future of the theater is restored, no matter how long we’ve been told that theater is dying.
My proof can be found on the stage and in the classroom, where some young, creative minds can give any theater lover hope.
All you need to do is spend a few minutes in Taunya Fogleman’s fourth-grade class at Southside Elementary School in Sarasota in the final days before they perform William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Every year, Fogleman works with her students to present a condensed version of a Shakespeare play. They don’t just recite the lines. They speak them as if they know and understand exactly what they’re saying. They have studied the words and discussed the meanings.
They may not say them with the polish of trained actors, but rather with the fresh discovery that a young first-time actor brings to any role.
But these aren’t just any roles. They are Shakespeare. There’s a Puck with all the enthusiasm and excitement you’d expect, and a Bottom who has mastered the neighing sounds of the donkey into which he’s temporarily transformed.
Fogleman is some kind of inspiration to her students and those who get to observe them at work. She has frequently invited me to talk about my job as a critic and her students are among the most attentive and curious that I’ve encountered at any school.
Too often, my classroom visits become chores because the students clearly aren’t interested. Not this class.
There was hardly a student who didn’t have a hand up to ask or answer a question. And when they had the opportunity to perform a couple of scenes from the play, they were eager to show off and get my reactions.
I’m not used to critiquing actors quite this way (especially when they’re so young), but I hopefully provided some suggestions that might have helped them with their full performance held late last week.
The production was impressive. There have been acted acted productions of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," but I can't remember seeing one performed with such enthusiasm and spirit. And it was all put together in less than three weeks of school time.
The audience included many of Fogleman's past students, a true sign of the impact her classes and these productions have on them. We can only hope they get more opportunities to perform and expand their awareness and appreciation of Shakespeare.
And then there are the creative minds at work in Florida Studio Theatre’s annual Young Playwrights Festival. Every year, the theater works with thousands of students in a dozens of schools, giving them the tools to turn their ideas into plays.
From more than 3,000 submissions, the theater chose 14 as winners for its “Under Six” group (kindergarten through sixth grade) and another either for “Seven Up” (grades 7-12).
These young writers don’t know about limits or saying no to themselves. So, hamsters and posters, telescopes and guitars can talk and move.
This year’s “Under Six” performance had a subtle focus on the need for teamwork to get things done, as in Luke Downes’ play “One Stuck Rock.” A rock wants to see a beautiful flower, but he needs other flowers and vegetables in the garden to roll him to the right place to see.
The young writers are treated like heroes, and Associate Director Kate Alexander said they should be compared to Olympians in Ancient Greece.
“We should be placing laurel wreaths on your tender, soft heads and carry you through the streets,” the way athletes were once honored, she said.
There were no wreaths, but the winners got to stand at their seats or on stage and have medals placed over their heads.
Before the performance of “Under Six,” playwright Mark Brown (author of the world premiere of “Tom Jones”) tried to give the winners a sense of their achievement.
“You’ve written plays, which in itself is a huge accomplishment,” he said.
Then he told the playwrights, their teachers and parents to “imagine a huge pile of Cheerios that you could jump into. Somebody had to taste every Cheerio and decided this one tastes the best. You’re the best tasting Cheerios.”
Those young writers did offer some tasty ideas worth celebrating, and more importantly, supporting and encouraging in the hopes that they have more stories to share with us in the future.
Jay Handelman is the theater critic for the Herald-Tribune and president of the Foundation of the American Theatre Critics Association. Contact him at email@example.com. Be sure to “like” Arts Sarasota on Facebook, Follow me on twitter at twitter.com/jayhandelman.