For Junior Players, summertime is Shakespeare season and this year, the organization is tackling a theatrical challenge.
The oldest non-profit children’s theater organization in Dallas is presenting its first production of a tragedy by the Bard, Othello, with a cast of teenagers.
“We’ve mastered the comedic content in this program’s 27 years. We’re always trying to challenge them and I finally thought they needed heavier content to really test to see if these teens can step up to the table and take that same language with heavier content and deliver it with the quality they do with the comedic content,” Rosaura Cruz-Webb, Junior Players’ Executive Director, said.
Lissette Sandoval, a graduating high school senior who plays Bianca in Othello, would not have been so confident about performing Shakespeare’s tragedy when she started with Junior Players three years ago.
“When I started, it was difficult for me. I had no idea what I was talking about. I had no idea what I was doing. But later, you learn to fall in love with the language itself and it tells a completely different story,” Sandoval said.
Introducing Shakespeare’s language to hesitant teenagers is Junior Players’ specialty. The organization did a series of workshops at Title I schools throughout the school year. They auditioned 150 students and eventually settled on a 23-member ensemble cast, ranging from rising freshmen to graduating seniors.
Rehearsals for Othello began June 12, with the cast rehearsing four hours a day, five days a week. The first week of rehearsal focused on intensive workshops about language and thematic study, fight choreography and physical expression. At the end of the week, specific roles were assigned.
The first week included a history lesson because Cruz-Webb and the show’s director, Lydia Mackay, set the show in 1968.
“The politics, the social politics, the Civil Rights Movement, the hippie counterculture, the music, the wars that were taking place, the assassination of our leaders make that time in American history fascinating. When I really started to read the play more in depth, it started to make a lot of sense. Things started to fall in place. Why does Iago do what he does? Why is Othello so easily corrupted? What are the things that make men do the things they do? This play is a singular storyline and it is all about war,” Mackay said.
Cruz-Webb believes the setting offers teens a different viewpoint on today’s political climate and modern-day war.
“It’s also really relevant with our teens with the current political system, being afraid of the policies that may or may not take shape or form,” Cruz-Webb said. “I think our teens need to tell their perspective. Even though we’re setting it in 1968, it’s a different way to identify with the current political system.”
Mackay did not shy away from exploring the complicated themes of war, honor and power with teenagers.
“We talked very openly, very candidly about all of the themes that are in the play and all of the themes relevant in 1968. The students met it with complete maturity and understanding and an eagerness to dive into the work to do the story justice,” Mackay said.
The students absorbed the gravity of the play’s themes and the emotional toll war takes on a human being.
“I’ve learned how easily it can affect someone’s mind,” Sandoval said. “We get to see almost what happens in their minds, a first look at what they are really thinking.”
Mackay, an adjunct theater professor at Texas Christian University, is impressed with her cast for her first directing assignment with Junior Players.
“This is definitely on-par with what I think of as professional theater, focusing primarily on the high school students in the shows,” Mackay said. “This experience has been a combination of me fulfilling my own love of research and crafting lesson plans and directing a show with 23 people while it’s also a class I’m teaching.”
Sandoval, once lacking in confidence, finds strength and purpose in Junior Players’ professional expectations. “You’re not treated like a child here. You’re responsible for all of your actions,” Sandoval said.
This fall, Sandoval will attend Texas State University on a full scholarship. She plans to major in musical theater with a minor in theater and education communications. Junior Players will always be her creative home.
“I feel safe here. There’s no judgment. There’s no ridicule. There’s nothing negative about this. It’s a home for me. I’ve always battled negative things in general and coming here, I forget all of that. I forget what’s outside for at least four hours. I get to escape from every problem,” Sandoval said. “Theater is life for me.”
Performances of Othello will be July 25-July 30 at Samuell-Grand Park at 8:15 p.m. each night.
Kimberly Richard is a North Texan with a passion for the arts. She’s worked with Theatre Three, Inc. and interned for the English National Opera and Royal Shakespeare Company. She graduated from Austin College and currently lives in Garland with her very pampered cocker spaniel, Tessa.