‘Shakespeare High’: Making bold with the Bard

March 8, 2012


There seem to be an endless series of student competitions about which to make documentaries – and any number have been made over the years.

From “Spellbound” (about the National Spelling Bee) to “Louder Than a Bomb” (about high-school poetry slams) to “Ten9Eight: Shoot for the Moon” (about a high-school entrepreneur contest) to “Mad Hot Ballroom” (about elementary-school ballroom-dancing contests), these films use the tension and suspense of competition to provide a window into the lives of the students themselves and the adults who work with them.

The latest is “Shakespeare High,” a documentary about an annual southern California theatrical competition in which high school teams compete at presenting condensed versions of Shakespearean plays, each told through either a single scene or a new interpretation (often using hip-hop and other music).

The film draws its star power from the alumni of one particular school: Chatsworth High, which produced such alumni as Kevin Spacey, Val Kilmer and Mare Winningham. They all turn up to talk to the camera and, at one point, Spacey and Winnngham visit their alma mater.

Most of the film, however, is devoted to following the run-up to the state tournament, focusing on a handful of schools. There are wealthy, privileged school, schools from tough urban neighborhoods and, of course, schools from tiny towns who turn out to be the most surprising competitors

The most compelling stories belong to the kids from inner-city schools, where a male team of actors (who have never performed on stage before) see Shakespeare and theater as a ticket out of a gang-banging future. It’s chilling to listen to them talk so casually about the kind of violence they regularly committed as a matter of course in the gang life.

There’s a lot of talent on display, both in terms of the performances and the writing and rewriting of Shakespeare. While some teams complain that the showier units get all the attention, you feel enthused about students finding new ways to make the Bard relevant to their own lives. It’s also a marvelous demonstration of the way the arts enrich and expand lives that otherwise might be constrained by family and economic forces.

Still, it’s not hard to see stars in the making. In particular, a kid named Tosh (who talks candidly to the camera about giving up the thug life for theater), has an elastic face, physicality and voice to make his performance as Bottom from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” memorable, even in the miniature version presented here.

There’s a formula to this kind of documentary and “Shakespeare High” is no exception. But give it a shot; you’ll be surprised how quickly you get caught up in these kids’ worlds.

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