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Bridging the Gap Between Classics and Classroom

As city students began the new school year last month, the curtain went up for another year of Theater for a New Audience — known best by its acronym TFANA — and the educational programs it runs throughout the boroughs, especially those in Queens (former Districts 24, 25 and 30). The educational arm of TFANA was launched in 1984 by the Theater’s founder and artistic director Jeffrey Horowitz as a means of introducing Shakespeare and other classics to New York City schoolchildren. With 16 schools participating in its World Theater Project and four enrolled in the New Voices initiative (serving more than 3,000 students in all), TFANA is the largest program of its kind in the educational system. TFANA’s programs are financed in part by each participating elementary and middle school through funding sources like Project ARTS, NYS Council on the Arts Empire State Partnership, and Annenberg NYC Partnership for Arts & Education. The fact that private foundations, charitable trusts and corporate entities sustain the rest of the program may bespeak its value. In 2003, TFANA celebrated its partnership with more than 80 school teachers, and simultaneously debuted its new scholarship program for college-bound high school seniors at a dinner featuring veteran actress and special advisor to the board Zoë Caldwell, a Tony award-winner with a strong and early Shakespeare background from Stratford-on-Avon. Caldwell heralds New York City’s public school teachers as “a new breed of hero” because of the way “they inspire students on a daily basis” and help kids connect to theaters, museums, concert halls, dance — a culture that is the essence of New York City. TFANA education director Joe Giardina says he thoroughly enjoys bonding with his artists and public school teachers outside of the classroom. Giardina, Horowitz, and a host of other education professionals agree that TFANA’s programs work: promoting literacy as well as listening, speaking, reading, writing and critical thinking skills. Through TFANA, says Horowitz, “students are inspired to read literature and appreciate the beauty of the language.” Giardina voices both personal and professional enthusiasm for TFANA, and is proud to be affiliated with such a proficient troupe and its diverse educational efforts. He says statistics show that participation in TFANA’s initiatives improves student capacity, vocabulary and dramatic performance. Besides the research gleaned from his visits to the classroom, Giardina has the opportunity to observe students’ reactions to the in-theater performances that are a component of the World Theater Project each year. In its 2002-03 season, the theater (established in 1979) had runs of Moliere’s Don Juan, The General in America and Julius Caesar, with student attendance focused on Julius Caesar. In the new season, performances will include The Last Letter, a one-woman show about the Holocaust in Russia; Engaged, a non-operatic farce by William Gilbert (of the famed duo Gilbert & Sullivan); and Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre.

“The kids’ productions aren’t watered down,” Giardina says with pride. “It’s the same stuff adults pay to see.” Throughout the nine days students attended Julius Caesar last spring, he says fifth- through seventh-graders sat rapt for over two hours, then gave enthusiastic reviews. Perhaps it was because, as Horowitz believes, Shakespeare’s classic dramas are the most enduring expressions of the human condition. The nearly 100 classrooms across the country that participate in the 12 weeks of The World Theater Project enjoy a core program that consists of 10 classroom visits by a teaching artist that prepare students for their classroom and outside dramatic events. The experience can be customized to meet the individual educator’s needs, and the program includes nine hours of staff development, which enables teachers to effectively link the classic plays to their curriculum. Each school year culminates with the students’ attendance of a TFANA theater production and a class event, which translates what they’ve learned. In the 2002-03 school year, a creative interpretation of the curriculum, dubbed "Et tu, Couch?", was written and performed by students at I.S.127 in the Bronx. Their play was about Brutus’ conversations with his analyst regarding his angst over Caesar! TFANA also conducts New Voices, a 15-week program that teaches the elements of playwriting to high school students. This year, TFANA introduced another concept for older students: a scholarship program for college-bound seniors, underwritten by the Hadar Foundation. The scholarship will cover the difference between the selected senior’s financial aid and full tuition cost. Applications are being accepted now, and the winner will be named in early spring. Theater for a New Audience is located at 154 Christopher Street. For more information, call educational director Joe Giardina at (212) 229-2819.

Witty Prose Makes Shakespeare Palatable … Getting your kids to try Shakespeare is akin to having them taste Brussels sprouts, but The Random House Book of Shakespeare Stories ($20.95) just may help you get past the faces and protesting whines. Andrew Matthews re-tells eight of Shakespeare’s best remembered plays — Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Twelfth Night and Hamlet among them — with witty prose and background details that easily engage the emerging reader (8 and up). Each tale begins with a flyleaf that looks a bit like an old-time handbill, featuring a sub-title, caption line, cast list and setting description, followed by a couple of lines from Shakespeare’s original work. After revealing the plot through scenic detail and lively dialogue, the prize-winning author closes each story with a few more lines from its classic counterpart. Matthews’ prose, which isn’t hard to swallow to begin with, is even more delightful when paired with the drawings of Angela Barrett. The soft pastels of fairies from A Midsummer Night's Dream are particularly stunning. Children will laugh at that account, just as Shakespeare himself made folly of the complicity of adult love. And they’ll cry at others, such as the tragedy of the famed lovers from feuding families. Perhaps they’ll be a bit frightened by the witches, ghosts and skulls that pervade these works, or stumble over some of the olde, foreign names. But regardless of their reaction, your kids will get that serving of Shakespeare down.

… In more ways than one! And if you’d like to really introduce Shakespeare to your kids through their stomachs, New York City mom Francine Segan has the vehicle in her brand new cookbook, Shakespeare’s Kitchen, to be published this month by Random House ($35). Segan is a child psychologist turned cookbook author; her latest is a collection of easy-to-prepare recipes updated from Renaissance cookbooks. It also includes a list of suggested Shakespeare books on tape and reading books for young children, as well as fascinating facts on dining that she says “will keep kids riveted to the table.” The idea for Shakespeare’s Kitchen came from a family dinner Segan prepared with her kids’ help a couple of years ago. On the menu were appetizer-size meat pies (containing diced candied fruit, which Segan says her kids gobbled up very happily); salad (which she says was always a big part of every feast); and roasted chicken. After the meal, which they ate dressed in their bath robes, they sat down together and watched “Shakespeare in Love” on video. The family agreed this had been such a fun night, it got Segan thinking about the theme. “I found such wonderful recipes, I don’t know how they got lost along the way!” Segan remarks, adding that her own kids (Samantha, 15, and Max, 13) were amazed to hear that Will himself never tasted corn or drank tea (these were unknown in the Bard’s day), and that vegetables were routinely used in desserts. Segan’s book includes recipes for spinach cookies and a beet dessert — she swears no one would ever guess the ingredients. She also touts her homemade mustard recipe — “in which you can add honey, and the kids will suddenly love mustard!”


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