The Final Curtain Falls on Youth Shakespeare Group

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The theater group Bards of Birmingham owes its existence to some misbehaving children. Laura Heider was a youth minister, and working with the kids was rough.

“[Behavior] like fire starting and theft and things like that,” Heider says. “I couldn’t find anything that would really engage the kids.”

A friend recommended a book written by a teacher at a poor school in Los Angeles. The teacher reached the students by having them perform Shakespeare. The idea made sense to Heider. She says she read a lot of Shakespeare as a lonely teen. Directing a play was a different matter.

“It was terrible because I didn’t know what I was doing at all. And the kids didn’t know how to act and I didn’t know how to teach them how to act and I didn’t know how to direct a play,” Heider says. “But we had a really good time and one of the things that really came out that is the kids developed so much confidence.”

That performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 2008 was the spark. Two years later, Heider officially founded Bards of Birmingham.

The group has performed Shakespeare plays for almost a decade with casts of mostly children. They open “Henry V” Friday, which will be the organization’s final show ever.

Their own Spin on the Bard

Some of the group’s shows look like traditional Shakespeare, with the usual Renaissance garb, while others are reinterpreted. This “Henry V” is set in a post-apocalyptic world. Bards set “The Merchant of Venice” in 1930s fascist Italy. They sometimes used gender-blind casting. They set “Julius Caesar” in a women’s prison. Romeo and Juliet had two female leads.

In “Henry V,” the king is high school junior Sara Bateman.

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done without a doubt,” Sara says. “It has some of the most famous lines in all of Shakespeare. You know, I get to say ‘We few. We happy few. We band of brothers.’ It’s incredible.”

Six-year-old Stark Newton, the youngest cast member with a speaking role, says the best part is that his character gets to die.

“It’s just fun to really die. You just get to lay down, not do anything,” Stark says. “It’s comfortable.”

Bards of Birmingham exposes young children to some dark Shakespearean themes. Laura Heider rejects the idea that’s a problem.

“Our kids are doing active shooter drills at school. They’re facing their own mortality every single day,” Heider says. “This is a situation where they can have control over it.”

Heider says she talks through complicated issues with the young actors. She also doesn’t let anyone declare Shakespeare is hard. It’s only hard if someone tells the kids it’s hard, Heider says. The result of that process stunned Stark’s mom, Cindy Newton. Parents can’t sit in on rehearsals. They see the final product with the rest of the audience.

“Your jaw just literally drops to the floor because it’s not campy. It’s not cheesy. It is Shakespeare,” Newton says.

It’s been an all-volunteer operation, which weighed heavily on Heider. She’s starting a doctorate in her regular career and says she’d rather stop while the organization is strong. Several participants become teary as they talk about the end. Sara Bateman, who started performing when she was eight, says it’s been a place to wrestle with deep questions, and that’s shaped who she’s become.

“It’s going to be a huge loss for me and I’m going to have to grieve it a lot,” Sara says. “In some ways I’m very honored that I get to sing the swan song. But yeah, it’s going to be hard.”

Other theater groups have performed Shakespeare around Birmingham in the last decade, but none appears to have done only Shakespeare with an all-youth cast. For Bards of Birmingham founder Laura Heider, she hopes these happy few, this band of brothers and sisters, are better people because of the program. Even if they never set foot on stage again.

The Bards of Birmingham performance of “Henry V” runs Friday through May 12th at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham.


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