As actors portray scenes from “Romeo and Juliet” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the elementary school students watching are far from bored. They giggle and gasp, engaged in tales that William Shakespeare wrote centuries ago.
The production for third- through fifth-graders at Hodge Road Elementary School in Knightdale, North Carolina, is part of Burning Coal Theater Company’s ShakeScenes, which introduces students to Shakespeare through interactive exercises and performances.
The United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County helps bring arts programs like ShakeScenes to students through its Artists in the Schools program.
Artists in the Schools brings professional teaching artists into approximately 140 schools throughout Wake County to implement curriculum-based arts education. United Arts’ online Artist Directory lists more than 100 qualified teaching artists across numerous fields for schools to choose from.
Jerome Davis, Burning Coal’s artistic director, says theater and the arts are integral to learning.
“As we become more of a digitized society, the very best way to teach abstract thinking, the ability to look at one thing and see another thing, is through the arts,” Davis says.
He says theater also broadens students’ horizons.
"Theater introduces us to new works, new cultures," David says. "Often that new culture is very different from our own. That's important for American youth to experience as our world shrinks. It's important for them to develop that empathy muscle."
ShakeScenes encourages students to draw connections between what’s happening on stage and their own lives, like how to express motion and resolve conflict. The program even links Shakespeare’s work to rap music through a game called “Tupac or Shakespeare?” which asks audience members to guess who wrote certain lyrical expressions.
Burning Coal’s relationship with United Arts makes it easier to partner with Hodge Road and other area elementary, middle and high schools.
“It’s very useful for us because it creates a stamp of approval from an organization that’s very highly respected in the community,” Davis says.
United Arts’ grants have supported Burning Coal ever since its inaugural season 18 years ago. In addition to being a steadfast promoter of the arts, United Arts provides a steady source of funding at a time when other sources are cutting back.
“Having United Arts raising money and advocating like it does for the arts, it’s not just good, it’s critical,” Davis says.