The Billy Shakes Project, Kenyon’s theater outreach and education program focused on spreading the works of Shakespeare, will be shaking things up this semester.
Former Professor of Drama Kevin Rich founded Billy Shakes in 2011. From then on, the student organization performed Shakespeare as a troupe for the Gambier community and brought Shakespeare to third through fifth graders at Wiggin Street Elementary School in an abridged form.
Last fall, the group helped around 30 Wiggin Street students perform scenes from Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet. However, they were not able to perform last spring, nor will they this fall, as the pandemic has suspended live theater globally.
Until live shows resume, the club will email students a newsletter twice a week featuring videos, such as a summary of a Shakespeare play, a performance, directions to an improv game or a sing-along song.
Vonk acknowledged the difficulty of having been put in charge of Billy Shakes as a sophomore without leadership by upperclass students. “It’s definitely hard because we were just first years last year and … we’ve all of a sudden taken over because of the pandemic,” she said.
Faced with these setbacks, the five sophomores serving on Billy Shakes’ executive board recognized an opportunity to rethink the ways the club has gone about its mission of bringing theater to Knox County. The hiatus on live theater combined with a lack of oversight from upperclass students means the board has a chance to reshape the club, according to Vonk.
The board is planning to transform Billy Shakes by expanding its focus beyond Shakespeare to include a wider range of theater in order to better engage its young students, according to board member Laura Stone ‘23. She and Vonk had noticed that Shakespeare was tough for the kids despite the club’s attempts to choose fun, age-appropriate scenes for them, like the ones from A Midsummer Night’s Dream involving fairies or one of the rhyming witches scenes from Macbeth.
“We want to be an avenue into theater for these kids rather than starting them off with classical Shakespeare — which sometimes when I read in my English class, I don’t even understand the full gist,” she explained.
Besides the issue of comprehension, Stone worried that Shakespeare’s associations with elitism “emphasized the monetary divide in Gambier,” and thus could deter some families who might be receptive to more popular shows like The Wizard of Oz or Alice in Wonderland. By putting on accessible productions, the club will be returning to the original meaning of Shakespeare, namely what she called “theater for the masses.”
In the future, the club wants to stage hourlong musicals from Theatre for Young Audiences — a national youth theater organization — which will be open to Gambier and Mount Vernon residents. Alongside rehearsals for these musicals, Billy Shakes hopes to hold related workshops to teach the kids the elements of theater, Stone said.
Billy Shakes is recruiting new members, and will be hosting an interest meeting at noon on Saturday. The club encourages people to use the intermission from live theater and the “intimate, interpersonal relationships” to promote theater’s future in Knox County, according to Vonk.
Describing her own path to Billy Shakes, Vonk said: “One of the reasons I do theater now is because I got to see shows at my high school and [on Broadway]. Those shows defined me, inspired me and made me want to do theater myself. So I think we have a really awesome opportunity to give these kids and this community the same experiences that made me fall in love with theater.”