For Kirsten Kelly, Shakespeare is the ultimate teaching tool

SHARE For Kirsten Kelly, Shakespeare is the ultimate teaching tool

During the past year, Kirsten Kelly has reaped the rewards of many years of work that in one way or another is connected to her intense relationship with that playwright known as William Shakespeare.

For more than a decade, Kelly has been an integral part of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Education team, and was a co-founder (with Marilyn Halperin, CST’s Director of Education), of its Chicago Public Schools’ Shakespeare! program, now in its ninth year. That program, which each season engages students and teachers in the creation of a unique Shakespeare production on the company’s Courtyard stage, was among the recipients of the 2014 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award. And Kelly was among the guests at the Nov. 10 ceremony at the White House overseen by First Lady Michelle Obama.

Also in November, “The Homestretch,” the documentary she made in collaboration with Anne de Mare, was released by Chicago-based Kartemquin Films and screened in week-long theatrical runs in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, just ahead of its Amazon and iTunes VOD release. The film, which will be aired on PBS on April 13 as part of the “Independent Lens series,” details the struggles of homeless Chicago teens, and was inspired by Kelly’s interactions with students in the CPS Shakespeare! program.

Related: ‘The Homestretch’ cameras notice teens more than their parents do

Last but not least, in her first time as director of a professional Chicago Shakespeare Theater production, Kelly is staging her adaptation for “Short Shakespeare! Macbeth,” a 75-minute edition of one of Shakespeare’s most brutal plays running Jan. 17-Feb. 14.  Leading the top-flight cast of 13 actors in this tale awash in political intrigue and personal ambition will be Chris Genebach as Macbeth and Lanise Antoine Shelley as Lady Macbeth. The show will play to 1,000 students per day during its five-week run in the Courtyard (with public performances each Saturday at 11 a.m.and 2 p.m.). It will then set out on an extensive tour (by way of a crew of eight and a 20 foot-long box truck) of urban, suburban and rural schools throughout the Midwest.


Short Shakespeare! Macbeth When: Jan. 17 – Feb. 14 (Sats. at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.) Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand Tickets: $20 (adult); $16 (18 and under) Info: (312) 595-5600; Run time: 75 minutes with no intermission


“Some years back I did a production of  ‘Macbeth’  for our program for Chicago Public School high school English teachers and students,” Kelly recalled. “And Barbara Gaines [CST’s artistic director] reminded me of that, which I took as a hint that she thought I should tackle it again for Short Shakespeare. I think this play, which is so theatrical and action-packed, is an ideal entry point to Shakespeare, and along with focusing on its major themes, I wanted the supernatural element of the three witches to trigger the audience’s imagination.”

“My experience with that earlier production also suggested ‘Macbeth’ can be more of a challenge for young audiences than ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ or ‘Hamlet.’ But they understood the idea that you should not betray people, and that it is very easy to become intoxicated by ambition.”

So what is the connection between “The Homestretch” and Shakespeare?

“About six years ago, while working on a CPS program, I discovered that one of the kids I’d been working with for a month — who had good grades and a desire to go to college — had been homeless,” said Kelly, who these days splits her time between Chicago and the Brooklyn home she shares with her husband, her three-year-old son and a puppy. “And as Anne [de Mare] and I began to research the phenomenon we realized there were 15,000 CPS kids registered as homeless at that time, and that it also was a national problem. Thanks to grants from the MacArthur Foundation and Sundance, we began to study the situation and ended up following three Chicago kids — a Latino boy [who feels a particular connection with “Hamlet”], whose father was an illegal immigrant; a lesbian kicked out of her home by her mother; and a boy who has been placed in a transition home for teens.”

Related: ‘Homestretch’ directors on the making of their documentary

Kelly, who left Chicago to earn her MFA in directing from Julliard, has been returning here on a regular basis ever since, while also directing for Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, The Juilliard School and Lincoln Center in New York, as well as in Washington D.C.

Her work in film grew, quite literally, out of her roots. Raised on her family’s asparagus farm in Michigan (she earned her college tuition by picking the vegetable), she saw the changes that came in the wake of NAFTA when small farms were no longer viable and were often devoured by big ones. She made “Asparagus! (Stalking the American Life),” an award-winner on the 2006-7 film festival circuit. Another film, “Girl with the Rivet Gun,” an animated documentary project based on Rosie the Riveter, is in development.

Ask Kelly (whose next theatrical directing assignment in New York is Laura Eason’s “The Undeniable Sound of Right Now”) if she ever dreams of working on something other than Shakespeare with her students, and she says: “Not really, because his plays let you access such a breadth of humanity, and give you so much room for your own interpretations and opinions. You just keep discovering new things in them.”

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