This Cincinnati Shakespeare Company Initiative Brings The Bard to Students

PROJECT38 puts the plays of Shakespeare’s canon in the hands of tri-state students, who reimagine them, then take the stage themselves.

A board game of Love’s Labor’s Lost, a game show version of Titus Andronicus, and an animated poker game of Henry VI are just a few of the unconventional productions hitting the stage at Memorial Hall this spring as a part of the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s PROJECT38.

Illustration by Nathan Daniels

You’ve likely been to one of the company’s plays or Shakespeare in the Park tours, but its education department has a unique programming spin all its own. PROJECT38 brings theater to schools in the Greater Cincinnati area (45 this year), focusing on a simple yet unconventional idea: Assign participating schools one play from Shakespeare’s canon and give the students freedom to create artistic expression around it.

It’s been six years since students first took the stage with PROJECT38—named for the number of plays credited to the Bard—and those involved say the resulting exposure to the arts has proved to be life changing. Withrow High School has seen a “renaissance of the arts” since becoming connected to PROJECT38, says Diane Roland, an English and theater teacher there. Until 2019, there was no theater department at Withrow, but it was brought back due to PROJECT38’s success developing students’ team-building and problem-solving skills.

Many of the students begin the project feeling nervous and reserved, but Roland says CSC’s professional actors work to help them step out of their comfort zones and fully embrace the experience. One student enjoyed her time creating a production so much that she got involved with stage management in college at UC.

The project also takes its theater programming to youth in Cincinnati’s juvenile detention centers. Members of the company spend a week inside the centers, hosting workshops and exploring life’s themes. Maggie Rader, PROJECT38 coordinator and resident CSC actor, says the project’s overall goal is to help city teens find what rings true for them in the plays and to pursue that truth creatively.

Nearly 1,000 of the roughly 1,800 students participating in the project this year are gearing up to display their Shakespearean expertise at the annual PROJECT38 Festival April 28–May 1 at Memorial Hall in Over-the-Rhine. When teens in detention centers participate, Rader says CSC presents their recorded performances and, in turn, records the audience reaction for those students to see.

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