Shakespeare High (2011) – Documentary Retroview

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In Southern California, a mixed demographic of high school drama student teams from several schools scattered across the areas diverse neighborhoods, prepare to compete in the Drama Teachers Association of Southern California Shakespeare Festival, held each April.

Over the years since its inception, the annual Shakespeare competition has become just as popular as local and national sports events, and members of the participating schools’ drama groups are campus stars.

Shakespeare High is the entertaining documentary in which filmmaker Alex Rotaru follows several students who are members of competing four drama teams as the prepare for the big day of the 90th edition of the competition. Rotaru uses footage of auditions, rehearsals and performances, stitched together with on camera interviews with the drama teachers, students and several A-list Hollywood actors — Kevin Spacey, Mare Winningham and Val Kilmer, among others — who participated in the Shakespeare competition while they were attending high school in Southern California. At one point in the movie the stars return to their alma mater, Chattsworth High, to give words of advice to the fledgling actors.

Many of the students who sign on for the drama groups come from impoverished communities that are beset by gang wars and other criminal activities, and their participation in a Shakespeare competition seems unlikely. Yet, they are clearly quite committed to their groups and the Shakespeare project. The competition represents a way for them to broaden their horizons and prospects for a better education and life. They compete with each other for acceptance into the group, but once they’re in, they support each other solidly and form very strong bonds.

The competition between schools is fierce, and each drama teach has her or his own style. For the most part, the kids are challenged to come up with contemporary interpretations of the Shakespearean comedies, tragedies and history plays. This may not sit well with Shakespearean traditionalists, but the kids are on a full learning curve that teaches them not only verse, but social skills, as well.

Parents pitch in to make costumes, communities hold auctions and other such events to raise supplemental funds — but the concept and choreography come from the kids with their teacher’s guidance.

All of the kids featured in the film have gripping — and often horrendous — personal stories. The Emesibe twins, Melvin and Galvin, were sleeping in their house when their father killed their mother and grandmother. Despite that trauma, they’re really good, hard working kids, who play football and had already received football scholarships to college before they were recruited to the drama group which needed a big African-American kid to play Othello. Hello Emesibe!  And, the other kids who are followed in the documentary have stories that are just as interesting and compelling.

The hardest thing about this movie is realizing that some of the kids you come to like so much, and their teams who’ve worked so hard, are going to lose the Shakespeare competition. That’s the a bit of a reality check. Some participating seniors who won’t have the chance to compete again burst into tears when they realize their efforts are over, and they must move on. But they do so with so much more than they had going in to their Shakespeare High experience.


Title: Shakespeare High
Director: Alex Rotaru
Theatrical Release Date: March 9, 2012
Running Time: 81 mins.
Parental Advisory: Content advisory for parents
Country: USA
Location: Southern California, Los Angeles and environs
Language: English and Shakespearean EngLish
Production Company: Ifavor Entertainment
Distribution Company: Trigger Street Productions
Official Website

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