‘WILL POWER!’ gives city students a ‘visceral’ introduction to theater

An almost palpable enthusiasm permeated the room at Common Ground High School in New Haven as some 20 Students in the British Literature course were transformed into a company of actors.

Forming a circle, they exclaimed “Bah!” one by one, while simultaneously using hand gestures to pass the word to their neighbor. As they repeated the activity, increasing tempo, the students became fully focused on using their voices and bodies as theatrical instruments.

This is one of several theatrical exercises the students participated in during the classroom visit led by Ruth M. Feldman, the Yale School of Drama’s director of education and accessibility services.

Classroom visits are an integral component of “WILL POWER!” the Yale Repertory’s Theatre’s annual educational initiative held in conjunction with one of its shows. This season’s “WILL POWER!” show is Yale Rep’s sold-out production of “Hamlet” featuring award-winning actor and New Haven native Paul Giamatti ’89, ’94 M.F.A. in the leading role.

James Bundy, dean of the School of Drama, artistic director of the Yale Rep, and director of “Hamlet,” created the initiative in 2004. His objective was to make the Yale Rep more accessible to young people in the community. “I wanted local middle and high school students to experience live theater viscerally, including some of the greatest plays ever written,” said Bundy.

Often accompanied by a cast member, Feldman goes to several New Haven schools to prepare the students for their theater experience. Having recently read “Hamlet” and watched several on-screen adaptations of the Bard’s tragedy, the Common Ground group was familiar with the characters and plot. The opportunity for the group to see “Hamlet” at Yale was especially timely, since the class will perform the play this summer, in partnership with New Haven’s Elm Shakespeare Company.

The Common Ground group is among the more than 2,000 local middle and high school students who had the opportunity to attend this year’s “WILL POWER!” productions of “Hamlet.”

The program connects local students and teachers, Yale School of Drama students, and professional actors. In addition to offering discounted tickets and weekday matinees for school groups, the program also includes post-performance discussions with members of the company.

The School of Drama produces a comprehensive study guide for participating schools. The handbook includes a synopsis of the play, discussion prompts, and historical information. The “Hamlet” guide includes an interview with Bundy about the process of building the production.

Another aspect of the program is that teachers are invited to participate in a free professional development workshop at the Yale Rep. During this year’s session, Bundy discussed research and approaches involved in the production process.

“The program is productive and enriching for educators,” said Feldman, “Teachers appreciate the training and supplemental educational materials to incorporate the plays into their curriculum and further engage their students with the play.”

According to Bundy, studies show that people who attend the theater before the age of 18 are much more likely to attend later in life. “Subsidized tickets, teacher workshops, and study guides all promote greater attendance, better classroom instruction, and longer and deeper engagement with the story of a great play, and with its implications in our own lives,” said Bundy.

The program also benefits students at the School of Drama. “Yale School of Drama students who work on ‘WILL POWER!’ have a richer understanding of how to adjust the program for school audiences,” said Bundy. “It's a great teaching tool for professional training, and it's important for the field and its future.”

Since the program’s launch nearly 10 years ago, more than 20,000 students and educators have attended “WILL POWER!” performances at Yale.

Past “WILL POWER!” productions have included Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” “The Winter’s Tale,” “All’s Well that Ends Well,” and “Romeo and Juliet.”