On the car ride to Griffith Park, 11-year-old Rachel is in one of her moods. “Can't you just take me back and go yourself? … I hope it's closed.”
Rachel, the slender daughter of a Ghanese father and Caucasian mom, is visiting her grandparents in L.A. from Houston, where Rachel's mother is taking a much-needed respite from rearing the child as a single parent.
Rachel sometimes gets in these moods where she doesn't want to try anything new, or anything at all. But once she's there, the antipathy lifts and often she enjoys herself.
Her uncle knows this on the drive to see the free performance of Shakespeare's ribald comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor, presented by Independent Shakespeare Company in the open air behind Griffith Park's old Merry-Go-Round, where the audience sits on blankets or beach chairs.
The performance is to start near sundown, at 7 p.m., but Rachel and her uncle pull into the parking lot two hours earlier, for one of nine preshow summer workshops for kids, starting at 5.
Rachel had seen only a few live plays in her brief decade, and she had never seen a work by Shakespeare. Her uncle asks if she knows who Shakespeare is, and she shrugs.
As the pair embarks upon the final trudge up the hill to the outdoor stage, Rachel catches sight of items of laundry, set decoration, blowing in the wind, hanging on lines that extend from both sides of the makeshift stage out into what will in a couple of hours be the audience. But right now, the audience is just a smattering of parents and their kids, waiting for the workshop to begin. The trousers and aprons and skirts flapping in the afternoon breeze snag Rachel's attention, and lead to a growing intrigue.
Squinting in the sun, lean actor Andre Martin shouts from the stage for workshop participants to gather at the foot of the stage. Martin is in his costume as Pistol: boots, trousers, shirt and a jacket in earth tones, a cross between a disheveled outfit from a Charles Dickens story and something from the early 20th century. About 30 kids and their parents gather in front of Martin and his fellow instructors: actors Luis Galindo and Claudia Vazquez.
Everybody stands as the three actors lead the group through voice exercises: loosening the jaw, finding the origins of where sound comes from, in order to bounce diction off the furthest oak without a microphone.
Some sounds start in the pit of the stomach, some in the midsection, some in the nasal cavity. Within 10 minutes, the entire group, including Rachel, screeches in unison like parrots: “Caw, caw, caw, caw, caw, caw.”
Rachel isn't fully engaged, but then again, nor is she hanging back with her earlier disdain. Her participation is curious and cautious, reluctant but sincere.
Martin mentions the character Falstaff and one kid, who looks about 14, boasts that he knows all about Falstaff, and that he's already performed Shakespeare himself. The actors smile graciously while some parents roll their eyes.
These workshops are financed by a $29,000 two-year grant to the theater by the James Irvine Foundation as a means of redressing the way the public schools are throwing the arts overboard in this era of funding decimation. This kind of program may be the last hope to keep the classical arts alive in a culture of growing apathy toward them. Yet with the exception of the actors, Rachel is the only participant whose skin isn't white, and likely the only participant from a public school. The rest clearly are versed in the play, and in Shakespeare. It's evident that these privileged children are reaping the benefits of a free Shakespeare workshop in a public park, available to all but used only by those on the inside track to accomplishment.
Independent Shakespeare Company (and others with programming for local schoolkids, like the 24th Street Theater) is fully cognizant of this dilemma, and a core component of the Irvine grant is that three of the nine workshops be in Spanish. Vazquez says she can tell from the phone lines that bookings are starting to get brisk, and that the parents who RSVP speak only Spanish, yet the kids they'll bring are bilingual.
In a breakout session, the dynamic Vazquez has the kids creating visual tableaux based on the play's plot.
During the evening performance of the play, Rachel's uncle whispers how the two merry wives of Windsor are plotting to trick slippery, fat Falstaff — who's trying to seduce them for their money. “I know,” Rachel sneers. She knows, because of the workshop.
At intermission, the breezes are turning chilly, and Rachel's uncle checks to see if his niece wants to stay or head home. She wants to stay.
“You like Shakespeare, then?”
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