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The Weight of Mercy – DAREarts & The Merchant of Venice

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DAREarts goes to Stratford cover 1

Bullying and Racial Discrimination from the perspective of “The Other”.

DAREarts works year-round with youth from underserved Toronto neighbourhoods. It’s important to stay in contact and reinforce the DARE principles throughout the year. What better way than a drama camp and a trip to the Stratford Festival?

Some of these youth (ages 11 – 17) don’t get a chance to get out of the city let alone engage in an arts program during the summer.  The bus trip yesterday, through southern Ontario’s Mennonite country was a breath of fresh air – literally – a sense of adventure, and a creative atmosphere away from the city.

Fresh Air

This year’s ambitious play, The Merchant of Venice, Directed by Antoni Cimolino, is not a black and white story. There are more questions than answers; a good challenge for fifteen year olds, who normally see the world in black and white. The Merchant of Venice deals with social obligation, debt, bullying, racial discrimination, forgiveness, honour and other issues.  Shylock, a bitter and beaten man, carries with him a knife and a scale.  He wants what is due to him. The speech by Portia (as the Doctor) about mercy is one of the most beautiful and iconic speeches in Shakespeare’s canon. This production’s historical context set at the rise of Fascism in Italy in the late 30’s resonated with these youth as they saw parallels with their own life challenges.   The students knew that they were part of an important audience. This was the first preview of the production, and their reaction to the play would have an impact on the opening.

2013 DAREarts by Shakespeare sm


Packing Popcorn and Swimming Noodles

To heighten their experience, the students were given a tour of Stratford’s Prop and Wardrobe Warehouse. Mary, our guide, took the DAREarts Delegates through the stacks and rows of the Festival’s wonders.  55,000 pieces of wardrobe hung from 12’ double stacked racks, glistening in the dim light. Mary spoke with pride when she talked about the Festival’s 61 year history. She told them about innovations that were created by world famous Festival artists and technicians, and shed just enough light on stage craft secrets.

Mary showed the DAREarts youths some of the large pieces of scenery and props. The youths recognised ordinary house-hold materials and how they were cut and painted to make the prop. They noticed how light-weight they were. Just under the surface of that beautiful veneer is a bit of foam. Things are not what they seem to be.

A bad day

One of the most fascinating things a kid can see is a dead body. How about a head made in the image of an actor they’ll be seeing later that day on stage? What about that burned corpse with the hole in his stomach and half his leg gone?

Mary: “Here’s something you don’t see every day.”

Child: “I’ve seen worse.”

Mary: “Hopefully not in real life.”

Chances are, some of these kids, refugee Canadians from war torn countries could have seen worse. Mary, sensitive to a potentially disturbing subject, talked about how the body prop was made, and how it would be used in the respective play. She effectively took a gruesome corpse and turned it into a piece of knowledge and art.

Young Shakespeare

The piece de resistance of the tour was at the end, where costumes hung on racks that the kids could reach. They had been keeping their hands to themselves out of respect for the props and costumes and only handled things when given permission to do so. Now, at last, they could go bananas and try things on.

Is there anything quite as magical or freeing as a costume? Its transformative power turns actors into princes.  In this case, DAREarts kids into kings and queens, jesters and ladies.  Is that a young Shakespeare in the making? A new actor on the rise? Why not a producer?

The Value of Life

One theme of this year’s DAREarts Summer Camp is financial literacy: a tall order for DAREarts Lead Teacher Laura Mackinnon and Actor, Jenny Parr.  But they have fashioned a great week of games and exercises to complement Shakespeare’s life messages in ‘Merchant of Venice’.

After the performance, Stratford Festival representative, Greg Borotsik fielded some great observations and questions by the students, including the cost of theatre production, particularly taking a risk and selling a difficult subject to an audience.  There were observations about the choices made, time period, casting, relevance to today’s audience and how this will inform their own short version of the play.

It’s always interesting to hear a young person’s perspective on age old puzzles.  This Friday afternoon in Toronto, the youths will perform their own version of the play and we will see those perspectives played out.

To see their performance, come at 1:15pm Lower Hall of the Walmer Centre, 188 Lowther Avenue, Toronto Ontario

2013-Summer-Camp-Performance-Invitation

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