May 21, 2015
Kathleen Thornton

Senior English major Annie Rasiel had never abridged a play before, and she had certainly never abridged Shakespeare’s Macbeth for an eager group of middle school students. That all changed last winter, when she spent her winter term preparing for the first production of what would become the Oberlin Children’s Shakespeare Project (OCSP). “There are abridged versions out there,” says Rasiel, “But they’re so sanitized a lot of the time, which does a great disservice to the kids.”

Rasiel admits she had some apprehensions about teaching Shakespeare to middle school students, fearing she was “teaching them to worship an old, dead, British guy.” But working with Professor of Theater and Shakespeare scholar Paul Moser, and writing her capstone on the pros and cons of Shakespeare education for youth eased her anxieties. “If you can teach students that Shakespeare’s plays are dirty jokes and hitting each other with swords, but also big, essential human questions that they have just as much right to as anyone else, that sort of breaks down a lot of assumptions about not only the canon, but authority in general.”

Since Macbeth, Rasiel has incorporated her organization as a nonprofit and designed summer intensives, after-school semester programs, and one-time workshops for middle school students in Oberlin and the surrounding cities of Elyria, North Ridgeville, Norwalk, and Amherst. She has worked with Oberlin faculty to design a methodology for teaching Shakespeare to youth, abridged two other Shakespeare plays (with the original language and meter intact), and directed two more shows with middle school actors. Noting that middle school is where a lot of students get left behind academically, her outreach focuses specifically on lower-level English language arts classes. OCSP’s most recent play, The Tempest, went up this spring in the main room of Wilder Hall. Rasiel acknowledges that this play contains heavy themes of colonialism and enslavement, but refused to use an existing abridged version, noting that the content is often censored. “They turn the play into a fairy tale, and my kids are smarter than that.”

An actor all her life, Rasiel says she became interested in this project while engaged in research for a comparative American studies class, where she studied the One Direction fan-fiction of local middle school students. “The kids started complaining to me that they didn’t have a school play or a drama club or any kind of outlet for theater. And I thought, ‘Oh, that’s something I can provide.’”

Rasiel has long-standing relationships with teachers and students at Langston Middle School, tutoring in social studies and English language arts classes since her first year. She has also pursued many avenues of support through the college, including the Grant Proposal Writing course taught by Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Composition Jan Cooper, the new Arts Management course, and funding from Creativity and Leadership.

In Cooper’s course, students generally partner with existing nonprofits to write a grant proposal on their behalf. Of the 10 to 20 students enrolled in the course each year, Cooper says one or two sign up with the intention of writing grants for organizations they plan to start in the future. Rasiel is unusual, according to Cooper, as her organization is already up and running. Rasiel is currently drafting grant proposals to garner general operating costs and a stipend for her salary next year. “Annie is so enthusiastic about diving in and doing it and not questioning whether it can be done or not,” says Cooper. “Now she’s learning some of the things that might give it longevity.”

The transition from full-time student with a theater project into full-time nonprofit director drew the attention of Oberlin’s Creativity and Leadership program. This spring the program gave Rasiel a $500 Ignition Fund grant, which provides student ventures capital for early-phase organizational research and development. She plans to use this funding to improve the operations of the organization, meeting with an accountant and others in the nonprofit realm to discuss business plans and best practices.

Rasiel says she knows this will be a major transition. Not the least of her tasks is managing fundraising and finances. While presently receiving additional funding from ticket sales, donations, and crowdfunding, Rasiel says she hopes to “live a little less show to show” financially. Rasiel hopes also to pay herself a livable wage and, eventually, rent a more permanent office and rehearsal space. She has managed to save on costs while still rewarding college students for their participation by establishing an opportunity for volunteers to receive academic credit. She has also joined with other local organizations like the Apollo Outreach Initiative to provide the most engaging and supportive educational program for the students.

The upcoming summer intensive will run three weeks in July and August, and end with an outdoor production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in tandem with the Oberlin Summer Theater Festival. The summer and semester youth programs cost only $25, with scholarships available. As she transitions into a full-time director, Rasiel says she is ready to build even stronger relationships with middle school students in the Oberlin area. “I think of OCSP fundamentally as a literacy program. The kids care enough about their roles, the performance, and the plot that they get so invested in the stories that they want to decode it. That is really powerful.”

For more information about registering for the summer program or to donate to OCSP, visit the Oberlin Children’s Shakespeare Project website.

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