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Shakespeare Youth Festival likes to ‘play’ around

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

“The play’s the thing,” a quote from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is an apropos proclamation when talking about the Shakespeare Youth Festival (SYF), formerly known as the Los Angeles Drama Club Inc.

According to the organization’s leadership, the name change occurred because Shakespeare Youth Festival  “better exemplified” what they do. 

For 13 years, SYF has successfully built an ongoing artistic community of children and youth who, through the creative process of working with Shakespearean material, have found a passion, a purpose, and a safe place to express themselves and gain self-worth from their collective accomplishments. 

SYF, which boasts being the country’s youngest Shakespeare troupe, believes in the magic of theater.

The way the organization works is as follows. Throughout the year, young thespians rehearse and perform full Shakespearean productions, tell stories, decode language, improvise, rehearse and perform plays from the prolific playwright’s canon.  

The productions, which begin rehearsals on Monday, are then presented to the community on Friday. The cost to see SYF productions is a suggested $12 or “pay what you can.” No one is ever turned away.

Julia Walker Wyson, a former actress in Chicago, understands the power and magic of theater. As the executive director of SYF, she admittedly has a “huge passion” for both Shakespeare and for the theater, which is one of the reasons she came on board to help run the nonprofit alongside its founder Blaire Baron.

“Theater was a huge part of my high school experience,” said Wyson, a Northwestern University alum who earned a master’s degree from the University of Alabama. “I always wanted to be in a theater company.”

Anyone who has read Shakespeare knows the dialogue can be challenging. Wyson shrugs off the notion that children wouldn’t be able to comprehend or appreciate the dramatist.

“There is something about Shakespeare,” said Wyson, a married mother of one. “I think we in this age of tweets and sound bites are allowing our language to get truncated. Children can learn a language quicker than adults. 

“They can do more than we give them credit for. We believe in the ability of children to absorb and comprehend and to delight in the classic works of William Shakespeare. We want them to play big and step outside of their day-to-day lives.” 

Wyson said the theater troupe is about much more than just acting.

“We want the children to experience on a personal level how universal themes explored in great literature is the connective tissues of the human condition,” she said. “They learn communication skills, self-esteem, literacy and community spirit. Those are the benefits of doing this thing that we love called theater.”

SYF started with five children at the Brookledge Theatre in Hancock Park, which was built in 1941 for the purpose of hosting private magic shows. That’s where the SYF, which by then had grown to 12 members, performed The Seven Ages of Man speech from “As You Like It” for the first time. 

The troupe quickly outgrew the space and moved to the Lost Studio on La Brea and eventually the Lyric Theatre where they presented 32 full productions of Shakespeare plays, including “Hamlet,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and other “greatest hits,” but also rarely performed works like “Cymbeline,” “King John,” “Pericles” and “Henry IV, Part ii.”

Last year the troupe performed “King Lear.”

Wyson said they haven’t presented “Othello” yet because they are waiting for the “rightOthello” to come along.

Today, the troupe has grown to 80 and is in residence in multiple LAUSD schools.

The goal is to have a permanent space.

The troupe has worked out of Catch One on Pico Boulevard, Fais Do Do on Adams Boulevard and is currently using World City Center, a preschool they work out of on Saturdays.

 “We’ve been vagabonds for the last couple of years because we don’t have a permanent venue,” Wyson said.

Wyson said SYF, which operates on an annual budget of $150,000, desperately wants and needs a permanent facility in District 10 (West Adams/Mid-City) because that’s where a number of their kids reside.

“The West Adams and Mid-City area is a wonderfully diverse community,” Wyson said. “It reflects what we’re trying to do by bringing different communities together. The area is representative of the melting pot that is Los Angeles.”

Wyson said the kids who participate in the program come from all walks of life. While they have children of means, about 65% of the students are on scholarship.  

The kids who are not on scholarship pay the full price of $600 for the program. If a family’s finances are hindered, Wyson said SYF will do “its best” to make sure the child is scholarshiped. She said they make the effort because theater is important.

“Theater is a universal language,” Wyson said. “It all happens in the room. There is no separation between the audience and the actors. It makes them feel powerful.”

Wyson said by participating in theater, the children feel they can accomplish and connect with other people.

“It’s truly a community bond,” she said. “They get to know each other very well. The kids attain critical thinking skills, their literacy is strengthened, they articulate when they speak and they have no problem speaking in front of an audience. Children today have so much opportunity to connect electronically but not face to face. We give them the chance to speak their truth.”

SYF alums are doing big things. Some have gone on to college. One of its former students is Lily Larsen, 19, the youngest person currently running for the Los Angeles City Council. Reanna McGavin, is a Los Angeles youth poet laureate, while Iara Nemirovsky recently returned from a tour of the musical “School of Rock.”

SYF recently went global by taking four teaching artists and four students to Kenya to work at Dr. Alma Obama’s Foundation (President Obama’s half-sister). The group explored “Hamlet” with 88 kids in a rural village.

“We came up with devised theater pieces in Swahili, English and Luo,” Wyson said. “The kids loved it. It worked out very well.”

Shakespeare Youth Festival is supported by the California Arts Council, L.A. Department of Cultural Affairs, Go Campaign, L.A. County Department of Arts and Culture, the Fonda Family Foundation and private donors.

“Making A Difference” is a weekly feature profiling organizations that are serving their communities. To propose a “Making A Difference” profile, send an email to newsroom@wavepublication.com

By Darlene Donloe

Contributing Writer