Unique University Program Helps Students Learn Important Life Skills Performing Shakespeare’s Plays

Everyone’s a Stage for Students in a Florida College Program Focused on The Bard’s Plays

After school one day, Travis Curtright, a gregarious and confident sixth-grader, told his mother about his plans to become a stand-up comedian. In a way, his dream came true, as he was professionally inspired by the comic genius of William Shakespeare as the director of Shakespeare in Performance at Ave Maria University.

It all started in 2012 when Dr. Curtright taught a course in Shakespeare’s plays at university. With a professional education at the American Shakespeare Center and Chicago’s The Second City, he naturally shared his love of literature and theater with students. “I would stage the students’ interpretations of various scenes or soliloquies or part of the action in the play. Students loved the freedom and experimental nature of exploring plays this way and asked me to direct them in a production, and that’s how it all started in 2012,” said Dr Curtright, who earned a doctorate in literature from the University of Dallas.

Over the next 10 years, what evolved from these popular courses became the Shakespeare in Performance program, an undergraduate minor like no other. Here, students can simply take courses or earn a minor under their scholarship. Each piece is performed by a troupe of students with little or no experience. And semester after semester, students line up to perform under his tutelage.

A 2020 production of “Hamlet”. (TylerNeill)

His productions at the Donahue Family Black Box Theater, built in 2019, are part of cooperative and collaborative efforts.

Although many young men and women have come and gone in his many productions over the years, Dr. C., as the students call him, appreciates what makes great art and therefore shares it with students.

“Great art should change us. Shakespeare’s art is no exception. Really great or cool performances of ‘As You Like It’ or ‘Hamlet’, in a sense, can be seen as ways to expand the human mind and become better versions of ourselves,” he said. -he declares.

Dr Curtright believes that Shakespeare’s brilliantly written plays, language and characters provide “powerful thought tools for examining life – and performing Shakespeare in particular means sharing and learning about his incredible articulation, and that alone is a hugely empowering thing. “, did he declare. .

“Above all,” he added, “Shakespeare requires active engagement. His works need us in the sense that we must provide what his plays, by modern standards, are strangely lacking.

His successful teaching philosophy calls for active engagement. That is, students determine what is not present in the text, which encourages actors to create space on stage for imagination and invention – without sets and with house lights. . What looks like improvisation leads to comic relief or an aspect that dives deep into character development.

“There is a marriage proposal from the Duke to Isabella at the end of ‘Measure for Measure’, but how should his response be staged? What elements of Hamlet’s feigned madness seem genuine, if any? In “Much Ado About Nothing,” should it be inferred that Benedick and Beatrice were romantically involved before the action of the play began? Students answer these questions by trying out different versions of soliloquies and exchanges between characters, but the plays themselves demand such attention from directors, actors, and indeed, all readers.

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“The Taming of the Shrew”, a 2018 production. (Tyler Neil)

Dr. Curtright’s production style and educational mission in the Shakespeare in Performance program is a testament to what success on a college campus can look like. For 10 years, performances of Shakespeare’s original plays have been reworked in a relatable way. William Shakespeare made adjustments from sources, borrowed plots, composed characters from those plots, and created a language that would speak to the time and region in which he lived: Elizabethan England.

“While the language remains largely the same, I rework plays into scripts for today’s audiences and for young actors to grow up in. On the artistic side, the shows are creative and unique works precisely because of the particular personalities of the troupe and the way we work together to shape the direction of a production. But Shakespeare’s plays can be considered both a living art form and a profound means of human development.

Each semester, comedians find training outside the academic rubrics of Ave Maria University. Sharing their craft with students in an engaging way is what defines a truly gifted teacher. With each new character, new show, new scene, and new actors, Dr. Curtright finds the experience rewarding. And its novice actors too.

“Most if not all of the students are new to a push phase and some have never acted before. That said, acting skills can be developed. The students play with the lights on and without decorations in order to put them in the foreground in a more accentuated way. They also speak directly to members of the public,” said Dr Curtright.

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The pieces incorporate song and dance, like a hip hop number in “Hamlet.” (TylerNeill)

“This type of theatrical presentation gives them a healthy sense of risky behavior and teaches them to balance in company,” he added. “Students learn to center their bodies in public spaces, to speak and stand up straight, to be comfortable with eye contact, and in all of this they become more open to the world and those around them. “

For former members of Dr. Curtright’s troupe venturing out into the world for their next big adventures, he says his graduates have successfully found work in hospitality, radio, teaching, business and the marketing. Others have expanded their education with careers in dentistry and law and, of course, theater.

“What many report is how they learned verbal skills and so-called ‘soft skills’ while here and how these helped them after graduation. Thus, they mention how acting cultivates soft skills like emotional intelligence, communication skills, self-awareness, and even the ability to learn new things and do cooperative creative work. Speaking well and listening carefully to others turns out to be important for building relationships on stage and in the workplace,” Dr. Curtright said.

This could also be said of former student Robert Gotschall, a native of Alpharetta, Georgia, who transferred to Ave Maria University with no intention of acting. And he had no acting experience.

While visiting the campus in 2013, Gotschall met Dr. Curtright, who asked him if he was interested in taking this Shakespeare acting course. When Gotschall arrived on campus, he enrolled and learned fairly quickly that Dr. Curtright takes his job very seriously.

“It was he who hooked me on the idea that an artist can be a force for good in the universe. When you make art, it should be directed toward a force for good because it brings people closer to God,” Gotschall said.

The acting experience, particularly under Dr. Curtright, was an opportunity for Gotschall to create something magnetic on stage and through stories. Although he was happiest on stage performing and bringing people joy, Gotschall found himself very drawn to the storytelling aspect, acting on stage and entertaining people.

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Dr. Travis Curtright (L) works with actress Grace Babineau for the 2016 production of ‘The
Winter’s Tale.” (Tyler Neil)

“Dr. C. gave me confidence. I found that I loved it and was good at it,” he added, noting that he went on to earn a Masters in Fine Arts. Arts from Mary Baldwin University and found professional work to hone and share his skills.

Dr. Curtright believes that Shakespeare in Performance changes the lives of everyone involved.

“They were transformed and changed while playing Shakespeare – those times when they first internalized Shakespeare’s words and spoke them as if they were their own. What happens when students improve their technique is is that they understand how they should and deserve to be seen and heard, and that’s a great lesson in self-efficacy or empowerment,” Dr. Curtright added.

Such empowerment is how Gotschall became the craft. The Shakespeare in Performance experience helped him see the good in people, to find what makes each person unique.

His gift for listening to people is one of the greatest traits an actor can possess.

Following in Dr. Curtright’s footsteps, Gotschall finds plenty to emulate.
“He’s a loving, kind, God-fearing man who knows how to bring out good and joy in people,” Gotschall said of Dr. Curtright. “He listens to people and meets them where they are. Really, he’s good for what people need and he adapts to that.

The modernization of Shakespeare on stage continues to lead to adaptations that the community deeply appreciates and supports – and students yearn for semester after semester. If Dr. Curtright were asked what his favorite Shakespeare play is, he would respond with immediate satisfaction and joy: “The one I’m currently working on, of course!”

This article originally appeared in American Essence magazine.

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