Story by Rebecca Dobrinski
Photos by Lynsey Weatherspoon
Now is the winter of our discontent.
On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, a small group of actors gathered in the basement of East Lake United Methodist Church. About a dozen young men and women surrounded a table of props, mostly jewelry — each actor sought a specific talisman that marked the identity of their character. From skulls to silver chains, there was a special trinket for every player.
Skulls and silver chains? Toy guns and leather jackets? What kind of Shakespeare is this?
This is the Bards of Birmingham, a new non-profit organization’s whose mission is to “inspire and empower young people through the vehicle of Shakespearian theatre.” Founded in 2008 as the Cahaba Valley Players, the recently renamed troupe specializes in productions that feature young actors. Schools throughout the area are represented, from Hoover and Hueytown to Homewood and Roebuck Springs. The casts often include young actors performing on stage for the first time. Parents and volunteers help make the costumes and sets.
This winter, discontent and idle pleasures will be displayed for everyone to see on that basement stage in East Lake. Friday, Jan. 13, is opening night for Richard III. Actually, Richard III with a twist.
The Bards have put their own stamp on one of William Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies. Instead of the traditional Elizabethan setting, this production brings Richard and crew into modern times. These young actors such heavy issues as gang violence, power and drug use. According to Bards’ director Laura Coulter, they are coping in a way “that even most adults couldn’t handle with maturity.”
The twists do not stop there. The role of Richard is played by an actress, 16-year-old Morgan Walston, and Queen Margaret, as played by Olivia Hayes, also 16, is a heroin junkie. Richard’s brother Clarence sports arms covered with tattoos. After intermission, a hip-hop dance routine brings the story back to life.
The Bards of Birmingham is the brainchild of Coulter, who brought her lifelong love for the works of Shakespeare with her when she moved to Birmingham from California. Between the original English Bard and Rafe Esquith, a teacher from South Central Los Angeles, Coulter was inspired to use the experiences of both men to empower young people through Shakespeare. Each year Esquith’s fifth graders perform one of Shakespeare’s plays – which floored Coulter.
“It seemed like such a tremendous antidote to our young peoples’ slipping awareness of the English language, a way to teach self-confidence in front of others, familiarity with difficult concepts and a comfort with complex language that’s impossible to learn any other way,” she says.
People are often amazed by the work Coulter does with her young casts. Many adult actors are intimidated by Shakespeare’s work, but Coulter explains that despite the challenges posed merely by the language, children have not yet learned that they “can’t do it.” Young actors are not burdened by the fear, apprehension and preconceptions that plague even some of the most serious adult actors.
Last year, the Bards had two productions: A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It. Once they start with the Bards, Coulter’s young cast and crew are likely to stick around for more. Walston had roles in both, as assistant director for Midsummer and the lead Rosalind in As You Like It. There is a wide enough variety in ages that the Bards have a “junior” and a “senior” division. Midsummer was considered a junior performance, with a cast between the ages of 5 and 14, with the youngest turning 6 during rehearsals. The next junior division play will be The Tempest, with auditions in Februaryand performances in May.
In addition to learning about Shakespeare, actors participating with the Bards take away much more. There is the obvious confidence to perform and speak in public, but there is also the opportunity to learn a better command of the English language. They learn how to trust in their fellow actors and work together towards a larger goal. Ultimately, there is a tremendous work ethic and sense of responsibility shown by these young actors.
In their own words…
At that November rehearsal, the actors were randomly given a question to answer about their experiences with the Bards and Richard III. Here’s what they had to say.
WHAT DOES BEING A PART OF THE BARDS MEAN TO YOU?
Molly Michaels, age 13 (Young Prince Edward/Citizen #3/Messenger #2): Being part of the Bards has become a large part of my daily life. I’m very lucky to have the privilege of working with them and have become a much better actress with the help of everyone involved.
Dorian Davis, age 9 (Young York): It means that I have a chance to be acquainted with not only Shakespeare but also very cool people. It also means that I feel there’s nothing I can’t do.
Danielle Bishop, age 16 (Surrey/Catesby): Bards to me means that I get to do things I never would do. The wording is absolutely incredible with Shakespeare. Working with the Bards is channeling this side of myself that I love. Bards is just believing in yourself. It’s like my second home.
WHAT IS THE NAME OF YOUR CHARACTER AND WHAT IS YOUR CHARACTER’S CONTRIBUTION TO THE STORY?
Donald Martin, age 23 (James Tyrrel/Cardinal): My character is James Tyrrel. He is a sociopath who helps Richard ascend the throne by assassinating her enemies. He also murders her two nephews, who are children, so she can be the rightful king.
Olivia Hayes, age 16 (Queen Margaret/Lord Mayor/Citizen #2): Queen Margaret is who I play in this production. What my character contributes to the play is the foreshadowing of the tragedies of all the characters who end up suffering. She does this by predicting each character’s devastating future in the format of curses that come out of her hate, and the basis of this hate is the tragedy in her own life that was caused by the people whom she curses. In a way, she lives for revenge and to see her enemies fall as hard as she did.
Sidney Buckingham, age 11 (Clarence’s Daughter #2): My character is Clarence’s second daughter. We have given her the name Daphne. She goes through hard times being little and young with family members dying. Daphne gives a small sad detail to the play. She is very close to her sister.
WHY SHOULD PEOPLE COME SEE YOU PERFORM?
Elizabeth Piatt, age 13 (Clarence’s Daughter #1/ Page/ Messenger #3): Our production of Richard III shows that Shakespeare is timeless. It shows that revenge will always come back to haunt you.
Tyler Owens, age 18 (Lord Rivers): Because I love this. I love acting. I put everything I have into it. I want to work hard to give the audience a good show and do my very best to do my part to make this show worth coming to see.
Morgan Walston, age 16 (Richard): This show deserves an audience because it focuses on a world that most people refuse to look at. This world is dirty and dangerous and our younger generations are being forced to survive in it. This production explains the inner turmoil and struggle of someone who is a murderer. If we can pull just one single person out of this world and show them that art can be an alternative to violence, we will have accomplished our goal.
WHAT DO YOU THINK THE AUDIENCE SHOULD TAKE AWAY FROM YOUR VERSION OF RICHARD III?
Jessica Walston Alldredge, age 23 (Lady Grey/ Lady Stanley/ Duchess of York): I hope that the audience will recognize the timeless themes of Shakespeare, particularly the idea of a cycle of violence that fits so perfectly in this modern context. I also hope that people will not only appreciate how young the cast is, but also think on what using these youth within the story says about youth violence in our world and the passion that younger generations have to see a change.
Blake Tanner, age 18 (Clarence/Neville/ Richmond): I hope they make connections. A show as old as this with such a contemporary and controversial setting helps to show there are similarities — the world is still a violent place just as in Shakespeare’s time. I feel the more we educate the world on violence such as this, the more people will understand that it needs to be stopped.
Katherine Coulter, age 12 (Queen Elizabeth): I think they should take away that violence is a huge problem. That shooting people isn’t fun, like it is on Call of Duty, it’s horrific. I think that this production should give the audience a reason to go out and make a change. I want them to take a sense of dissatisfaction with the world as it is right now.
Performances of Richard III will be held at East Lake United Methodist Church, 7753 First Ave. South, Jan 13-21. Show times are 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, plus a 2 p.m. matinee on Jan. 21. Tickets are available at the door and cost $10 for adults and $7 for youth ages 18 and under. The show is not recommended for children under 12.
For tickets or general information on the Bards of Birmingham (including casting calls and future productions), visit www.bardsofbirmingham.com. Participation costs are very low and scholarships are available, which maximizes the ability for children of all walks of life and economic backgrounds to participate. You may also write directly to artistic director Laura Coulter: Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.