“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them,” William Shakespeare wrote in his immortal comedy, Twelfth Night. To at-risk youth from the Second District who are performing the play at several county parks in May, it’s not just another line to memorize – it’s a reason to hope.
Many of the Inner City Shakespeare Ensemble’s cast members are in foster care, entangled in gangs, struggling with poverty, even homelessness. But the fledgling theater company enables them to look past their circumstances and discover, as the Bard put it, a brave new world.
“Having grown up in Compton myself, I know these kids need a guide,” said Ensemble artistic director Melanie Andrews, Ph.D.
“We teach them not to be afraid of going beyond what’s expected of them,” she added. “I want these kids to someday have jobs that require saying more than, ‘Do you want fries with that?’”
The Ensemble began in 2010 when the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Los Angeles partnered with the county Department of Parks and Recreation and the students at George Washington Preparatory high school in Watts to stage Romeo & Juliet.
Inner City Shakespeare complemented Inner City Cinema, BAFTA-LA’s free movie screening program at 10 parks throughout the Second District, initiated in 2005. Recently, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas honored the academy’s longtime executive director and chief operating 0fficer Donald Haber for his and the academy’s contributions to the community, a few days before his retirement.
“The residents of Los Angeles County are grateful for the spirit of service you have brought to all these endeavors, specially in the Second District.” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas told Mr. Haber and BAFTA -LA during a ceremony at the Hall of Administration. “I give you a heartfelt ‘thank you’ for all the fun, the pleasure, and the fulfillment of dreams that you have brought to our community. ”
“Throughout this journey, different stakeholders and organizations came together and worked together,” Mr. Haber said. “But it was community that really did all the heavy lifting – they were just spectacular in the way they united to make sure their kids had a safe place to come to.”
Performing 16th century prose and poetry would be difficult for anyone, but particularly for teenagers who had grown up texting OMGs and emojis, and were already burdened with abuse, neglect, and other problems.
“We had one kid who could barely read, but the other kids thought he had stage presence so they helped him until he got the words,” recalled Ensemble producer and BAFTA LA board member Paul Heller, whose previous credits include the Oscar Best Picture nominee, My Left Foot, and Enter the Dragon, which starred Bruce Lee.
“I’m 87 now, so I doubt I’ll make any more movies,” Mr. Heller said. “It’s time for me to give back, and one of the reasons I love working with the kids is the hugs they give me – I think it’s what keeps me young.”
Dr. Andrews, along with fellow volunteers, also raised funds and mentored the cast over months of rehearsals to accomplish more than they ever thought they could.
“A lot of times these days, kids get trophies just for showing up, but I don’t allow my students to not be perfect with their lines,” she said. “They learn discipline and professionalism and working with people of different races and religions, so we get to see them grow – not only as actors but as people.”
The Ensemble’s members have a 100 percent high school graduation rate, and 85 percent go on to college. This year, it worked with students from Hollywood High and other local schools to stage nine performances, including at Victoria Park on May 16, and Ted Watkins Park on May 23 and 24. All are free to the public, but donations are welcome.
Two alumni from previous productions have moved on to Broadway, opening for the musical Amazing Grace this summer. Their fellow cast member, Thomas Carlton, now 20, is also pursuing a career as a professional actor.
“They’re a blessing,” he said of the Ensemble. “They save lives, they’re heroes, and I thank them.”