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Making Shaw Accessible to Young Audiences

By Kristin Leahey


            Shaw wrote, “My school was conducted on the assumption that knowledge of Latin is still the be-all and the end-all of education.  I was given no reason why I should learn Latin instead of some living language.  There was, in fact, no reason, as there were plenty of translations that have any survival value.”  Shaw contends that during his education there was little merit in learning a “dead language.”  Interestingly, twenty-first century American education systems dedicate little time to the study of Shaw’s work, including such classical plays as Pygmalion and Major Barbara.  Is Shavian theatre also considered a “dead language”?  As arts education programs continue to be cut from American public school curriculums, theatre studies, plays, and playwrights, such as Shaw, are studied less frequently during students’ secondary education.  As educators, dealing with these limitations, how can we still encourage young audiences’ appreciation for Shaw’s plays?  And, how do we prove Shaw’s work is intrinsically valuable to general education?

            In 2004, Chicago’s Goodman Theatre produced director Kate Whoriskey’s visionary production of Shaw’s Heartbreak House.  For two performances during the show’s six week run, the 850-seat house was filled with Chicago public high school students.  The production was bathed in green and red hues, actors entered and exited through portholes, and the explosive sounds of the destructive zeppelin rattled the entire theatre.  Throughout the academic year, the Goodman’s educational outreach department invites schools to free mainstage performances, such as with this production of Heartbreak House.  The student matinee performance is not altered for a younger audience but is the same production seen by general audiences.  Young matinee audience members are predominately African American or Latino students from low income households.  For many, seeing a Goodman Theatre’s student matinee is their introduction to professional theatre.  As a member of the Goodman’s education department, I wondered if marginalized young audiences could relate to Shaw’s primarily white, adult, upper class British characters and how students’ reactions to the show would influence their general education.  Would students become life-long enthusiasts and audience members by reading and seeing Shaw’s plays?  Whoriskey staged a visually innovative production while remaining true to Shaw’s text.  Since Heartbreak House is such an intricate play with poignant, fast delivery of language, we wanted to ensure that both the visual and verbal aspects were communicated to our young matinee audiences.

            To make Heartbreak House more accessible to these young audiences, the Goodman education department created study guides for students and teachers.  The guides helped fulfill Chicago public school’s general education requirements and contextualized Heartbreak House’s twentieth century themes from a twenty-first century perspective.  Students learned about Edwardian culture’s popular entertainments, books, and inventions.  In the guides’ activities, young audience members were asked to relate Shaw’s views on early feminism, censorship, and war to current events and trends.  The study guide deconstructed complex twentieth century themes in an accessible manner for young, contemporary audiences.  What other educational tools and pedagogical practices can educators use to make classical texts, such as Shavian theatre, relevant to young audiences?  In my paper and presentation, I will attempt to answer this question and pose potential solutions that further develop young audiences’ interests in Shavian theatre.  If we, as educators, encourage today’s young audiences to read, see, and challenge Shaw’s plays, his work will be sustained by the adult audience of tomorrow.