A Game Called Life: Aggeler Arts Education Program

by John Prosky, Company Member

Every day we play a game called life.
It’s a battle between Lucifer and Jesus
The messed up thing is we’re the pieces
And during war, there is no recess….

Antaean Kitty Swink coaches Aggeler student

Antaean Kitty Swink coaches Aggeler student

-Brandon, Aggeler Student

In their own words, the young men of Aggeler are from a place of “carrying a weapon to be safe,” yet they’re also from “video games and imagination.”  The same young man in a certain moment of the class will strike you as a boy and in the next moment strike you as a man.  In the span of two minutes one of these young men can go from making a remarkably insightful and intelligent observation about Shakespeare to fighting with another guy over a chair he claimed he was sitting in. They are not in a lockdown prison, yet by law they are considered “incarcerated.” In fact, almost everything about these young men is in a state of constant flux.  The only thing that is consistent about them…truly consistent… is their willingness to tell the truth about themselves (even though they are not always willing to tell the truth about why they are late or what happened to their notebook and I’m sure a bevy of other things).  That willingness to tell the truth about their addiction, their abuse, their crimes, or parental neglect is an act of searching.  Because the example of “character” in their lives is so inconsistent, it seems to me that must be what they are searching for.  By character, I do not mean the actor’s definition of the word, I mean “character” in the Dr. Martin Luther King definition of the word; as in “The content of…..”

Sample NotebookOur work and lesson plan with these young men has two focuses.  One focus is exposure to Shakespeare, and we do that with the best Antaeus has to offer – its actors. The Antaeus team picks a character’s subplot from one of Shakespeare’s plays – one that we think these young men can relate to – and then we come into the facility and two or three Antaeus actors perform that character’s soliloquies and scenes.  We then ask the young men to write in first person about what they just saw.  We do improvs and theater games based on the character’s experiences and struggles, and start a discussion about the moral lesson that Shakespeare was trying to explore with this given character.

Over the past four years of our program, subplots touched on include: the step brothers Edmund and Edgar from King Lear, Macbeth from Macbeth, and the character arc of Prince Hal from three of Shakespeare’s history plays: Henry 4 Part 1, Henry 4 Part 2 and Henry 5. Our Antaeus actors performed Prince Hal’s full character arc from party-boy drunk who hangs out with the wrong guys (the ones who convince Prince Hal to join them in a mugging) to the Hero-King who delivers the St. Crispin’s Day speech.   In the pure pedagogy of studying Shakespeare, these young men get something that all teenagers sitting in an English classes studying Shakespeare don’t get.  They get to study Shakespeare through the component of performance.

I guess if you tell a kid he’s nothing but useless
He’s gonna grow up abused and useless
In art – me and Edmund are alike
I’d be called a bastard if lived then right
I’ll admit I’m a barn accident
But I was born of nature a strong creator
And Shakespeare I feel my Edmund’s pain
The only thing I got from my father was his last name
And my stepbrother gets more love it’s insane.
And to think today you love all your kids the same
So Bill since you’re sitting in the corner
If Edmund don’t get a happy ending you’re a goner

-2009 Response to Edmund in King Lear

Ramón de Ocampo explains Shakespeare

Ramón de Ocampo explains Shakespeare

Our other focus is an exercise we call “event that changed my life.” All of us have those defining moments when something significant happens, or we make a decision that changes our life.  Those events define us.  These young men have a lot of those events, MANY more than other young men their age.  For this exercise, we ask the students to write that life-changing event down in class using two sensory memories from that event. Then we pair them up, and they share the events with the group – the idea is that each guy tells tell his partner’s life-changing event as if it were his own.  In other words, they tell their partner’s story to the group in the first person.  This exercise teaches what an actor does: he embodies someone else’s story. The more fully the actor does that, the better an actor he is.  There is also a therapeutic side to this exercise; in these populations of at-risk young men, it builds a sense of empathy.

20130524174906In the ten years I have led this exercise, I cannot tell you how many times I have seen a young man discover something hugely significant.

Program cover for the final culmination, drawn by an Aggeler student

Program cover for the final culmination, drawn by an Aggeler student

They talk about a sudden recognition of the consequences of their actions, they comfort each other if one of them breaks down, and most importantly they realize that the guy who they previously considered the “other”(different race, rival gang member, just someone they hate, etc.) is someone who has the same problems, issues, dreams, and heartbreak as they have.

If part of the “content of character” for a young man includes the knowledge of self and empathy for others, then Shakespeare and the theater is a good tool for these brave young men to start their search.

Presume not,
that who I was is me,

‘Cause I can be, whatever it is,
I want to be.

-Chorus Hook for Culmination Performance

Prosky_JohnAntaeus Company Member John Prosky heads up our Arts Education programming at William Tell Aggeler Opportunity High School, an ongoing class that uses Shakespeare to reach at-risk youths. 

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