Change & Growth in CYSE's A Midsummer Night's Dream
I joined CYS at a tremendously chaotic point in my life. I had recently made the decision to leave my Ph.D program at Northwestern, and had no idea what my future held. The realization that the path I was following into academia was not the path I wanted to follow was a difficult realization to make. Along with it came a host of negative consequences: disappointment, regret, embarrassment. Though I was excelling academically in my program, I was floundering emotionally and psychically. I knew I couldn’t spend an uncertain number of years more feeling as unhappy and unfulfilled as I was. We have only so much time on this planet.
Making the decision to redirect my life, knowing that there would be a tremendous amount of uncertainty going forward, was difficult, but necessary. Entering what I knew would be my final year at Northwestern, I came across a call for interns to work with Chicago Youth Shakespeare. Though I had heard of their Battle of the Bard program, I didn’t know much else about the organization. After investigating their website and a long conversation with Manon Spadaro, the Founding Artistic Director of CYS, I decided to join the team and hoped that my background as both a scholar of Shakespeare and as a theatre practitioner would prove useful.
I expected that my skills as a writer and educator would be of service as the organization tackled grant applications and developed curriculum for in-school residencies and workshops. What I didn’t expect, once I began attending rehearsals for the Youth Ensemble production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, was how quickly invested I would become in helping to further the mission and vision of the organization. I had told Manon that I would attend the first rehearsal for an hour or so, to meet the students and get a feel for the program. Five hours later, I hadn’t left. When Manon came over to ask me why I was still there, I simply responded, “I can’t leave this room.”
CYS rehearsals go beyond exploring the play, building scenes, and developing characters. Under the guidance of Jeremy Ohringer, the Youth Ensemble Director, the young actors learn to connect with and support each other, create an open and safe environment, and grow intellectually, emotionally, and artistically. Stepping away from the volatility I had been experiencing in my own life and stepping into the rehearsal room a few nights each week, the world seemed to disappear. Any actor knows that when you enter the theatre or rehearsal space, you drop your everyday worries, stresses, and anxieties at the door. Any actor also knows how difficult this is. In rehearsals for CYS, we recognize that, while this unloading is necessary, it’s impossible to completely shed all of our emotional baggage. What rehearsals allow us to do, however, is acknowledge that baggage, confront it, and ease its passage. Leaving rehearsal, I never felt anxious about returning to everyday business as usual. I felt refreshed, renewed, revived. It felt like we had all escaped into the woods for a night, that we had all been “translated.”
My own knowledge of the play and experience in text and voice coaching soon proved useful to the rehearsal process. I served a variety of roles, sometimes running workshops, being on-book for runs, leading warm-ups, helping develop individual scenes, and more often than not simply being as helpful a presence as I could be. Over the course of three months, I came to feel an affinity toward this group of brilliant and talented young actors. I watched as they embraced their roles and collaborated as an ensemble. I was, and remain, inspired by their dedication, commitment, and passion for their work. And, perhaps most importantly, they made me laugh. A lot.
From admission into the program onward, the Youth Ensemble process is most of all about growth. Students are admitted into the program without being assigned roles; the first few rehearsals serve to explore movement, voice, and expression, of each student and of the ensemble as a whole, to give the director and others a sense of each actor’s strengths and needs. Once they’re given their parts, the students don’t settle into them immediately. There’s quite a bit of work done to ensure not only that each actor understands his or her part, but understands why he or she was chosen for that role, to set goals and look forward to their development as artists. With every rehearsal, we could see each student growing more and more intimately familiar with their role, making it a part of them; as the arc of their character progresses and matures, so do they. It’s a chance for them, as they examine and eventually embrace their characters, to examine and embrace themselves.
I didn’t know any of these students at the outset, and in many ways felt like an outsider looking in at the process. Many of them had acted in previous CYS performances, were friends were each other because of CYS, or sometimes attended the same school. The staff of CYS, including Manon, Jeremy, and Katie Langley, the Production Manager & Programs Coordinator, knew many of them and had already seen them change throughout other productions. As a newcomer to CYS, however, I was starting from scratch, in a way. The students, however, made me feel invited into their process, into their knitting together as an ensemble and into their maturation as individuals, as creative thinkers and innovative artists. As they grow, everything and everyone around them grows. Twelve weeks seems a remarkably short time for this group to have come into their own as much as they did, to have been inspired with as much confidence as they were. It’s a testament to the capacity of CYS to empower, connect, and enrich the lives of those involved in it.
Though I am sad to see the performances concluded and this season’s ensemble over, the experiences I had these past months have transformed me. At the (notoriously always emotional) final rehearsal a week after the show’s close, I expected us to play some games, reflect on what we’d experienced and how we’d grown, maybe learn a useful new skill or two. And while we did all of these, more than that, by the day’s end, we had opened up, and each of us shared not just what we felt we’d learned or accomplished, but how much the experience had changed each of us, deeply. In the smiles and in the tears, you could see, feel, palpably, how much CYS means to these students, and to those who work with them. Each of us left more open, more inspired, more changed than when we had begun.
Being a part of CYS has given me the confidence to move forward and the clarity to envision what I want to accomplish, the kind of work I want to be doing, and whom I want to help in my life. Instead of a mess of tangled and forking paths in front of me, I see a world of opportunities. I’ve learned to acknowledge, confront, and come to terms with the decisions and choices I’ve made. I’ve learned to be excited about change rather than apprehensive. Each and every brilliant student and teacher working with CYS has given me direction. They’ve given me inspiration. They’ve given me hope.
I look forward to working with CYS for as long as I can. And when our summer ensemble starts up in June -- well, let’s just say I’m counting down the days.
Lee Benjamin Huttner is the Education Assistant for Chicago Youth Shakespeare. He holds an M.A. in English from Northwestern, an M.A. in Humanities and Social Thought from NYU, and a B.A. in English from the University of Pennsylvania. He teaches English at Northwestern, and has previously worked with the Kelly Writers House, the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Philly Fringe Arts, the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, Mauckingbird Theatre Company, and the Chicago Fringe Festival.