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PHOTO BY LEE A. BUTZConspirators plot to save Rome from tyranny in the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival 2015 “Linny Fowler WillPower Tour“ of “Julius Caesar.” Dorbens R. Lemma, left, plays Brutus and Arlen Hancock portrays Cassius. PHOTO BY LEE A. BUTZConspirators plot to save Rome from tyranny in the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival 2015 “Linny Fowler WillPower Tour“ of “Julius Caesar.” Dorbens R. Lemma, left, plays Brutus and Arlen Hancock portrays Cassius.
‘One play at a time’ 16th annual PSF ‘WillPower’ tour takes Shakespeare to region’s classrooms ‘One play at a time’ 16th annual PSF ‘WillPower’ tour takes Shakespeare to region’s classrooms

‘One play at a time’ 16th annual PSF ‘WillPower’ tour takes Shakespeare to region’s classrooms

Wednesday, November 11, 2015 by LUKE MUENCHSpecial to The Press in Focus

It’s one thing to read a play by William Shakespeare. It’s another thing to experience it.

As it approaches its 25th anniversary season in 2016, The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival (PSF) again gives that experience to young audiences through its annual “WillPower Tour.”

The centerpiece of PSF’s educational programming has been performed at 150-plus schools and for 145,000-plus students since its inception in 2000. The tour meets academic standards, and includes an 80-minute production with set and costumes, trained actor-teachers, workshops and a classroom study guide.

This year’s 16th “WillPower” production is Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” with 28 performances through Nov. 20 at middle school and high schools in 11 counties, including Berks, Bucks, Delaware, Lehigh and Northampton, and Gloucester and Warren in New Jersey.

Lehigh Valley stops on the “WillPower Tour” this fall included: William Allen High School; Lower Macungie Middle School, East Penn School District; Easton Area High School; Northeast Middle School, Bethlehem Area School District; Quakertown Community High School; Bethlehem Catholic High School, Bethlehem Township, and Liberty High School, Bethlehem Area School District.

A “WillPower” production can be scheduled for half-day or full-day programming. There’s a post-show discussion with the cast.

The full title, “The Linny Fowler WillPower Tour,” recognizes an endowment gift by its namesake, Linny Fowler, who believed in the power of theater in education.

For the eighth year, PSF received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which has helped “WillPower” log 3,000 to 4,000 miles each fall and serve 40 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.

PSF’s WillPower Tour is part of Shakespeare in American Communities, a national program of the NEA in partnership with Arts Midwest.

When asked why “Julius Caesar” was chosen, PSF Producing Artistic Director Patrick Mulcahy says, “It certainly helps that it’s one of the plays on most high school reading lists, so students will be familiarized with the piece in some manner before they see it.”

Beyond that, Mulcahy expresses a deeper, more literary reasoning behind the selection: “‘Julius Caesar’ never really goes out of style. The social-political climate, the behind-the-scenes look at the effects of power ... we still see these themes play out today.”

“Julius Caesar” is directed by Aaron Cromie, a multidisciplinary theater artist whose credits include The Folger Shakespeare Theatre, Walnut Street Theatre and Wilma Theater.

Scenic design is by seven-time Emmy winner Bob Phillips (TV’s “Sesame Street”). Costumes are by Janus Stefanowicz. Sound design is by Kristian Derek Ball. Production Stage Manager is Karyn Bohli.

“With the plays performed on our stages, we have to make props and sets that last three and a half weeks, but they are all staying in one place. With a tour, we have to make sure they can handle being thrown in the back of a truck every day. So we hire the best to make sure we can do just that,” says Mulcahy.

The “Julius Caesar” cast includes a mix of college theater graduates and professional actors: Peter Danelski (Maurellus, Octavius, Metellus Cimber, Arlen Hancock (Cassius), Alexander Korman (Marc Antony), Dorbens R. Lemma (Brutus), James Miller (Casca), Annabelle Rollison (Decius, Cinna, Citizen), Simone Stadler (Portia, Flavius, Lucius, Citizen), Alex Thompson (Julius Caesar) and Aurea Tomeski (Calphurnia, Soothsayer, Lepidus).

“Education is our core value when performing any play, but particularly through our tours,” says Mulcahy. “Whether it be the students on stage or the students watching, everyone is learning, and that’s what I love most about this whole process, and ultimately why I chose ‘Caesar.’ It offers such great learning opportunities with rhetoric and the power of persuasion that you really can’t get anywhere else.”

According to a study published by the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform, students who attend live theater enhance their literary knowledge and expand their social skills, increasing tolerance and empathy. Researchers found that viewing high-quality theater productions leads to enhanced knowledge of the plot, increased vocabulary, greater tolerance and improved ability to read the emotions of others.

On top of this, one of “Julius Caesar”’s strongest attributes is the power of words, hence, “WillPower.” It’s a primary focus for PSF and its audiences. “It’s an exercise for young people to see the tools of influence and argument in practice,” Mulcahy says.

High school students who attend workshops taught by the actors gain a more intimate and hands-on experience with the play. “They’re not just going to be standing around watching other people do all the work,” says Mulcahy. “The content is engaging and instructive, giving them a chance to try it for themselves.”

In this way, The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival continues to open the eyes and hearts of students across the state, giving them an irreplaceable experience with theater that they otherwise may never have.

“Half of the people who come to see our company’s performances are students,” Mulcahy says. “We’re just trying to reach out and support the next generation as best we can, one play at a time.”