One Wednesday last month more than 500 people streamed into the main auditorium of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater to watch the company’s sold-out performance of Julius Caesar. Audiences had been filling the Navy Pier house for almost two months, but this one was different–it was made up of high school students from several local public schools.

They were there as part of the theater’s Team Shakespeare, which just might be the finest theater outreach program in the city. It isn’t the only one–almost every company has one. But some offer performances featuring their youngest, least experienced actors or dopey kids’ shows that talk down to adolescents. And some might do as much damage as good, because budget-chopping politicians can see them as the perfect excuse to cut theater classes.

The Shakespeare Theater folks say they hope no one sees their shows as a substitute for school theater programs, and they point out that they’re careful to leave the work of teaching the plays almost entirely to the schools. “We take the name Team Shakespeare seriously–there’s a big reason why we chose it,” says Marilyn Halperin, the theater’s director of education. “We wanted to make sure that as a theater we weren’t coming in and telling teachers what to do. There is a huge, universal chasm between the work of a teacher and the life of a school and what we do. We wanted to recognize from the beginning that if we each brought to the table what we know the end result would be that much stronger.”

Halperin estimates that since the program started ten years ago it’s brought Shakespeare to more than half a million students. At least eight matinees of every main-stage production are now reserved for high school students, who pay only $15 for a ticket that normally costs $58. The theater raises money specifically to subsidize the student shows.

Each year the company also does about 40 shows featuring abridged versions of Shakespeare plays for junior high and high school students from both the city and the suburbs. This year they’re offering a 75-minute version of Romeo and Juliet. The theater will also take the abridged shows to any school with a suitable stage and lighting and sound systems. “The abridged show goes on tour to 31 schools and a couple of presenting houses, like the Beverly Arts Center, a year,” says Halperin. “Many of the actors in our main-stage shows are also in the abridgment shows. Lisa Dodson, for example, was Cleopatra in our production here at Navy Pier. She’s also Lady Capulet in the current abridged production of Romeo and Juliet.”

The company’s actors, directors, and set designers also put on teacher workshops at the Navy Pier facility. At the workshop for Julius Caesar, Barbara Gaines, the play’s director, gave a speech to more than 100 teachers, explaining her choices for the set, costumes, and casting. The point was to help the teachers prepare their students to understand the production they would soon see.

“This is a difficult play for kids to get–I didn’t really understand it until a year ago,” Gaines, also the theater’s artistic director, told the teachers. “It’s a young play. Shakespeare wasn’t that into brilliant characters when he wrote it. Brutus is underwritten. We chose it before September 11. Why? Because we hadn’t done it. We felt rather guilty.”

Gaines said the play’s enduring relevance could be summarized in a famous line offered by Cassius as he stands, blood dripping from his hands, over Caesar’s murdered body. “Cassius says, ‘How many ages hence shall this our lofty scene be acted over in states unborn and accents yet unknown?’ Think of how many assassinations have happened since then,” she said. “There’s a metaphor for why I love this production. On opening night my Democratic friends said, ‘This is all about Bush, Cheney, and Rummy.’ My Republican friends whispered in my ear, ‘For God’s sake, don’t let the mayor come.’ And Israelis in attendance have told me that Antony is Arafat, whipping up the crowd.”

The teachers laughed.

“Of course this is not a problem with only Bush or Daley or Israelis or Palestinians,” Gaines went on. “This goes back 2,000 years. This play goes back into a time when the first cavemen chased the other cavemen out of the cave. This is an old story that proves H.L. Mencken was right when he said, ‘The only thing we learn about history is nothing.'”

After Gaines finished her speech, Kate Buckley, the theater’s text coach, led the teachers through an analysis of the play. Using Scott Parkinson, who plays Cassius, as her orator, she showed why he phrased Antony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech the way he did.

Halperin says that over the years Team Shakespeare shows have been seen by high school students who went on to become actors and have played roles in some of the theater’s productions. Parvesh Cheena, who’s in Romeo and Juliet, saw a production of Macbeth when it toured his high school about eight years ago. And Brian Hamman, who will play Florizel in the upcoming production of The Winter’s Tale, recalls seeing an abridged version of Romeo and Juliet when he was a sophomore at Naperville North High School. “I remember a lot about that show–it had a big effect on me,” he says. “I remember where I saw it. I remember the actors. I remember the scenes. I remember a little about the question-and-answer segment at the end. I remember the opening ‘spit speech,’ where an actor comes onstage and basically welcomes the kids and tells them not to be intimidated. We call it the spit speech because whoever gives it always says, ‘You will see spit fly.'”

After graduating from high school in 1995, Hamman studied theater at the College of DuPage and Columbia College. Over the last year he’s won roles in small stage productions around town, paying his rent with the money he makes stocking shelves on the night shift at the Whole Foods at Ashland and School. “I stock shelves from 10 PM to 6 AM,” he says. “I usually sleep from six until whenever my first call is.”

In 2001 he was cast in his first role at the Shakespeare Theater, playing Percy in Richard II. “I got to give the spit speech at the student performances,” he says. “It was sort of appropriate, knowing that only a few years before I was one of the kids in the audience.”

Hamman and other actors say they enjoy the student shows. Parkinson says, “I think that the big difference between playing for adults and playing for the students is that the students are generally less willing to censor their reactions to what they’re seeing. Oftentimes this allows for a more electric interplay between actors and spectators. They won’t keep themselves contained if something is amusing to them or if something shocks them.”

The student audiences are also more unpredictable. At a recent Wednesday matinee a lot of students laughed at the scene in which Cinna the poet is viciously murdered by a mob that’s bent on avenging Caesar’s death. It’s a gruesome scene. A throng of actors descends on the actor playing Cinna, Alan Wilder, pummeling him and yanking his jacket from his back.

Later one veteran teacher said the laughter was further evidence that young minds have been corrupted by stupid television shows and video games. “They didn’t understand what was going on,” he said.

A junior from Prosser High School said the scene just struck him as funny: “Come on, you gotta admit it looked pretty funny when the dude’s coat went flying up in the air.”

Halperin had a different take. “I don’t think they were laughing because they thought it was funny,” she said. “I think they were laughing because they were uncomfortable. Violence onstage is a little stressful. I think it makes them a little anxious to see this level of unrepressed violence, and so their laughter can be a bit of a distancing device, almost as a defense that separates them from murder.”

At the end of the matinee Halperin, Parkinson, and Kimberly Hebert-Gregory, who plays Brutus’s wife, came onstage to answer questions. At one point another Prosser student confessed that he was baffled by the final scene between Cassius and Brutus. “First they were going to fight,” he said, “then they were going to kill each other, then they were hugging and making up–man, I didn’t know what was going on.”

Parkinson agreed that the scene was difficult to follow and said that was because it captures the complex relationship between Cassius and Brutus, as well as their idiosyncratic and unpredictable behavior.

Afterward Halperin offered that question as evidence that the matinee production was a success. “I love it when students feel safe enough to say they didn’t get something,” she said. “That’s when I know we did our job. That’s a hard thing for anyone, even adults, to admit in public, especially with the actors onstage. It is a complicated scene, and it’s easy to get confused–and there’s nothing wrong with admitting that.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.