Colorado Shakespeare Festival combats school shootings with ‘Julius Caesar’

From left to right, Royce Roeswood as Cassius, Jihad Milhem as Caesar and Anastasia Davidson as Brutus in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's touring production of "Julius Caesar."
Jennifer Kiskinen/Courtesy photo |


What: ‘Julius Caesar,’ presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival

Where: The Temporary at Willits

When: Tuesday, March 6, 7 p.m.

How much: $5/advance; $12/day-of


When the Boulder-based Colorado Shakespeare Festival goes on the road, its performances of the bard’s plays are aiming for more than delighting audiences. Armed with the works of Shakespeare and the latest research on school violence, they’re going into schools aiming to make students safer and, they hope, to prevent future incidents.

The Shakespeare Festival this week will give workshops in local schools and at The Temporary using “Julius Caesar” as a forum to address school shootings.

The festival has been doing these kinds of productions since 2011. They began as Shakespeare Festival staffer Amanda Giguere was working on a production of “Twelfth Night” and noted how the themes in the comedy spoke to contemporary issues around school bullying.

Giguere reached out to the University of Colorado’s Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence for information and data about violence in schools, which spawned a partnership between the organizations using Shakespeare to address the issues.

They stage productions around the state, mostly in schools, and use the latest findings on school violence to make Shakespeare’s works relevant to today’s young people.

“They’ll do workshops and role-playing exercises with students, giving them an opportunity to wrestle with the choices the characters are making or that characters could have made instead,” explained the Shakespeare Festival’s Heidi Schmidt. “What’s causing the violence? And how can they apply those choices to their lives? How can they make their schools safer places?”

In the case of “Julius Caesar,” the company focuses on the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar and the terrible societal consequences of his murder. The Prevention of Violence center’s research on school shootings since Columbine indicates that 81 percent of the time before an incident occurs another student knew a classmate was planning an attack.

“A lot of the times, kids know something is going to go wrong, they just don’t know who to tell,” Schmidt said.

So, in workshops on “Julius Caesar,” the Shakespeare Festival’s actors and teaching artists ask students to consider whether Cassius or Brutus or Cinna or another of Caesar’s colleagues could have exposed the plot and stopped the murder.

“A lot of people know it’s going to happen, that people are going to kill Caesar,” Schmidt said. “So for us the question is, ‘Was there another way? Did someone who knew have the opportunity to intervene and maybe have a less violent outcome that wouldn’t have resulted in several years of civil war and thousands of deaths?’”

Unlike the full productions the Shakespeare Festival famously stages in Boulder in the summertime, its touring shows for students are stripped-down and abridged to run under an hour, though the poet and playwright’s words are left intact.

“We don’t treat this like kids’ Shakespeare in any way,” Schmidt said. “We don’t rewrite the language. It’s Shakespeare, just shorter.”

Along with performing at The Temporary on Tuesday night, the company will do three in-school programs this week in Glenwood Springs: “The Comedy of Errors” at Glenwood Elementary School and “Julius Caesar” at Two Rivers Community School and Riverview School.

The performance at The Temporary is aimed at the general public and will be followed by an extended talkback about the play’s contemporary implications and the Shakespeare Festival’s educational work.

Ryan Honey, executive director of the Arts Campus at Willits, which opened the Temporary as it plans its bigger performing arts center, said bringing socially relevant programs like this one to the midvalley is a cornerstone of the nonprofit’s mission.

“(The Arts Campus) is committed to using culture to address and highlight the important issues of our day,” Honey said via email. “It’s easy to think of performing-arts venues as strictly (for) entertainment, but we have an opportunity and a responsibility to be so much more than that.”