Monday, December 31, 2012

Movie Monday: "Shakespeare High"

Some nights, if I can't find anything I want to watch on TV, but I don't want to do something else, I'll go searching on OnDemand for a movie I haven't seen before. Sometimes this works out and sometimes it doesn't.

Last night it worked out really well.

There was a documentary called Shakespeare High (2011) listed on Showstime's OnDemand service. The description sounded interesting, and so I decieded to give it a try.

Shakespeare High is not about one specific high school, but about several groups of students at several high schools around Southern California as they prepare for and participate in the 90th annual Drama Teachers Association of Southern California Shakespeare Festival. They are a wide variety of students from a wide variety of private, charter. and public high schools, with a wide variety of reasons for participating in the festival. The school to beat, as it turns out, is Hesperia High, located in the small-working class town of Hesperia, in California's Mojave desert. Some of the other schools participating include an all-girls Catholic high school, the more upscale Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, and Chatsworth High School, located in the far northwest corner of the San Fernando Valley.

Chatsworth High has a history with the festival, and a history in the entertainment industry, and is famous for one of its graduating classes in the 1970s that included several soon-to-be-famous actors: Kevin Spacey, Val Kilmer, and Mare Winningham. All three participated in Shakespeare Festival when they were students and Chatsworth, and all three appear in the film. Spacey, in fact, is one of the executive producers of the documentary, and also makes one of the most important points in the film, right at the end, when he argues that participating in festival is more important for students who do not end up going into the arts than it is for those who aspire to careers in acting, writing, or music. Festival, he says, is a way to learn self-esteem and how to present oneself to the world, and that is important to matter what those students end up doing in their lives. But he also draws a direct line, for himself, from his participation in Festival to the awards he has won for his work as an actor.

It is interesting to hear the comments from famous alumni of the Southern California Festival - besides the trio from Chatsworth, we also hear from Richard Dreyfuss, who participated in Festival when he was a student at Beverly Hills High School - but the heart of the film is how the viewer gets to know some of the current student participants as they rehearse for festival, tell their stories, and then actually participate in the one-day Festival, held that year at Reseda High School, in the San Fernando Valley. There is triumph and there is heartbreak, not only in the competition, but in the lives of the students. There are some fascinating personal stories here, and a lot of determination to succeed, not only at Festival but in life.

There is also a lot of creativity and inventiveness here. The rules of the Festival allow no props or costumes of any kind, although students can use four chairs. Otherwise it is just them and their talent. Additionally, they can either cut down a play to the maximum time limit per entry of eight minutes, or they can do a single scene, and they can alter the play or the scene in any way they wish as long as they don't change Shakespeare's meaning. Each year, the Association chooses three of Shakespeare's plays for competition. In the year covered by the film, the chosen plays are "Othello", "A Midsummer Night's Dream", and "Macbeth".

There is also controversy. Some of the drama teachers celebrate the rules that allow changes and updates to Shakespeare's scenes, but others worry about the contemporary influences that inject what they see is too much modernism and too much violence into the scenes. One of the scenes from "Othello", especially, is very violent. There is also the expected grousing from some of the drama coaches and some of the students about the judging at Festival, but this normal and to be expected.

What one of the drama teachers said, near the end of the film, about the influence of participating in Shakespeare Festival, especially struck a chord with me. He said, "You will always remember the festival, and what you did, and who you did it with." From experience, I can testify that this is true.

You see, I participated in junior high Shakespeare Festival in Southern California when I was in 9th grade (my school district ran a 7-9 junior high and 10-12 high school). I would be surprised if that festival wasn't part of the same system, based on the film's portrayal of how the event was run and other evidence in the film. And I do remember. It was one of the formative experiences of that part of my life.

So, perhaps part of my reaction to Shakespeare High has to do with that recognition of a shared expereience. Another part of it might be that this is the region where I grew up, and I got to see some familiar landscape. Still, and aside from that, this is a good film, and one that is an antidote to the present widespread pessimistic feeling that high school students today have no initiative and no ambition. There is plenty of initiative and ambition here, and plenty of potential.

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