Twelve high school students and one twenty-something actor comprise the cast of this year’s Urban Impact Shakes production of Much Ado About Nothing. There is 32 years of Shakespeare experience between the 12 students in the cast. The youngest cast member is 13.
Urban Impact is a Christian community-development nonprofit that works with inner-city students. Most of the students live on the North Side and are in the Pittsburgh Public school system.
Much Ado About Nothing, which will be at the New Hazlett Theater tomorrow and Wednesday, is the fourth production put on by the Shakes program since it began in 2010. After the Pittsburgh performances, the group will go on tour, taking their production to Buffalo, N.Y.
The Shakes actors have met four times a week since June. A typical meeting is six hours and includes acting workshops, Bible study, English classes, lunch and rehearsal. This schedule is telling of the Urban Impact philosophy, which touts the holistic approach to development, aiming to address students’ academic, physical, emotional, social and spiritual needs.
Eric Anderson, the performing-arts program manager at Urban Impact and the director of Much Ado About Nothing, believes the program is valuable because it utilizes each student’s talents. They chose Much Ado About Nothing partly because they knew one of the Urban Impact students was a talented songwriter.
The adaptability of Shakespeare fits well with the goals of the program: “Shakespeare is really vigorous; it makes people think,” Anderson says, but also “it can fit our students.” Past productions have included a “Rome-punk” version of Julius Caesar and a Depression-era rendition of Romeo & Juliet. As a director, Anderson encourages the students to be 50 percent the characters and 50 percent themselves. “So they’re not traditional soldiers coming back to Messina; they’re young men, the high school aged boys, who are playing them, too.”
Anderson explains that this production has borrowed from the style of Mumford & Sons and other neo-folk bands. This folky inspiration shaped the costume and set designs, which Anderson describes as natural and whimsical. The students and adult volunteers wrote folk-inspired melodies to compliment the lyrics in Shakespeare’s comedy.
During the show, periodically, the students yell “stop!” and break the fourth wall to address the audience with personal testimonies about their spiritual journeys and how they can relate to what’s happening on stage.
“People have always been surprised, and will be surprised, that some of these students bring so much life and so much depth to their characters,” Anderson says, “It’s amazing.”
The performances on Tuesday and Wednesday start at 8 p.m. Ticketas are $8-12. For more information, call 412-321-3811, x128, or visit urbanimpactpittsburgh.org.