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The Bards of Birmingham rehearse for Shakespeare's Richard III last month.

Unique Youth Theater Group Teaches School, Life Lessons

Bards of Birmingham's Richard III Far From 'Shakespeare-Lite'

90.3 WBHM In times of severe school budget cuts budgets, arts and theater programs are often the first to disappear. But in Birmingham, a youth acting group is teaching lessons to any kid with the chops to get on stage. It's also pushing boundaries in a way that might make some theater traditionalists and parents uncomfortable. From the Southern Education Desk at WBHM, Dan Carsen reports:

The year: 2012.The place: the heart of the city. And Richard, a young woman with a lust for power and no moral compass, is plotting a violent rise...

That's from the website of the Bards of Birmingham, a unique youth acting group open to kids of all socioeconomic backgrounds and from all around the state. The website also has a warning about the upcoming production of Shakespeare's Richard The Third:

This play is NOT recommended for children younger than 12.

The caution is understandable because it's a dark, violent play, but it's also strange because there's a ten-year-old in the cast.

Dorian Davis has been with Bards since he was eight and acting since he was five. When the play opens on Friday, he'll become the Duke of York, albeit a nobleman who isn't allowed to see the entire production.

But don't worry. He's pretty nonchalant about all the rehearsing and the special accommodations. "It's actually a very simple process. It's not hard at all," he says.

Another consummate actor, 16-year-old Morgan Walston, is playing Richard, the lead. And she's doing it as a woman.

"I think that it adds an entirely new dimension to the show," she says. "It makes it all the more special because it speaks to young women today."

The production includes a modern soundtrack and even a few film sequences. But it's by no means "Shakespeare lite." Its language and its timeless examination of violence and ambition have simply been brought forward in time to play out among street gangs and drug addicts.

Founder and director Laura Coulter, who's spent years working with disadvantaged kids, concedes, "It is a very dark play -- I think one of Shakespeare's darkest plays. But the way we have it set, it deals with issues of youth violence and gang violence. And unfortunately, that's a reality for a lot of kids today."

The play includes passionate scenes. The crazed Queen Margaret is portrayed as a heroin junkie. And of course, there's plenty of killing to go around. But there's also an anti-violence message.

Walston, who's occasionally had trouble getting out of character, points out that the ambitious sociopath Richard eventually goes insane.

She adds, "I think that theater can reach out to so many people, and I think that if one person -- just one person from the audience -- walks away from this show feeling like they understand our world a little bit better, they understand the violence and they want to stop it as well, then we've accomplished our goal."

Theater helps kids with academics, too. Beyond boosting their reading, memorizing, speaking, and self-confidence, the Bards of Birmingham have delved into history and language in a way that'd be hard to imagine without the kids actually stepping into roles.

As the 16-year-old female king explains, "It's helped me with critical thinking, and getting a big picture of things. And having to put that all together and understand what these words mean, because you can't just say them and expect the audience to understand it. You have to understand it, as an actor and as a person. So that's helped me in not only English but all of my classes."

Ten-year-old Dorian's mother Sheree Davis is an English teacher who helps run the group with other dedicated parents and volunteers. She says a previous Bards production of A Midsummer Night's Dream showed that director Laura Coulter has an uncanny way with young actors:

"She had these little five-year-olds, six-year-olds, on stage. They were not afraid. If you didn't see it, you'd never believe it. And this wasn't 'Shakespeare watered down, kiddie version, let's halfway do it.' It was real Shakespeare. These babies thought nothing of it. Nothing! She just says, 'Do it,' and because she tells them they can, they can."

She says Dorian's favorite birthday gift was a book of Shakespearean insults, which he hurls around constantly, sometimes at bad drivers. His mom and dad understand them, so he has to be careful at home. But among his friends, a little ignorance of Shakespeare might actually be a good thing ... at least for Dorian's buddies who are being teased without realizing it.

Bards of Birmingham's first performance of "Richard The Third" is set for Friday at East Lake United Methodist Church at 7 p.m. For more information, go to bardsofbirmingham.com.

Dan Carsen, Jan. 10, 2012

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