Back to School with the Fringe Festival
Kimberly Dickstein is a high school English teacher at Haddonfield Memorial High School in Haddonfield, New Jersey. In her seven years of teaching English language and literature, she has developed a rigorous and engaging Shakespeare program of study. This year, she blew her Shakespeare class wide open thanks to one crazy show she saw at the Fringe Festival.
Kimberly, also a member of FringeAxis (aka The Young Friends of FringeArts), is dedicated to seeing as many shows as she can each Fringe Festival. She spends every weekend in September at the Festival and averages five to seven shows each year—an impressive feat for a teacher at the beginning of the school year. “When I get the Fringe program, I do my best to see any Shakespeare or classics that might inform my teaching,” she says. With this goal in mind, she came upon Like a Bat Out of Hades by the Ombelico Mask Ensemble. This 2015 Fringe Festival performance fused the improvisational style of commedia dell’arte with traditional Italian puppetry to create a comic interpretation of the Greek tragedy Alcestis by Euripides. After seeing “ridiculous reimagining” of a tragic story of love and sacrifice, Kimberly worked with Brendon Gawel, one of Ombelico’s artistic directors, to bring the show to her school last October as part of her Greek Drama curriculum. For many of her students, this was their first experience seeing a professional production of any kind, let alone a Fringe performance. With Ombelico’s love for reinterpreting classic works in commedia dell’arte, she saw potential to continue this collaboration as she transitioned into her Shakespeare class in the spring semester.
While many high school English classes study Shakespeare by simply reading Romeo and Juliet and deciphering its lofty language, Kimberly designs her curriculum around which Shakespeare plays are being performed in the greater Philadelphia area, making the course truly “page-to-stage.” In a stroke of serendipity, she had arranged the course so that her students would begin the semester studying Hamlet—the exact play that the Ombelico Mask Ensemble was in the midst of adapting for the 2016 Fringe Festival. Together, they decided to host a program on February 25th, recognized internationally as Commedia dell’Arte Day, in which the Shakespeare students would pitch their comic adaptation of Hamlet to Ombelico.
Kimberly’s students went far beyond the normal expectations of reading and analyzing Hamlet in preparation for this presentation. From learning improv basics to mastering sales pitches, they worked tirelessly to recreate Hamlet as commedia dell’arte, an effort that culminated in reinterpreting the final act in which everyone dies. The solution? All the dead characters would rise as ghosts and air their grievances to form the most awkward, disastrous family reunion ever.
“What happens in my classroom unfolds much like a drama; we have our players, our exits and entrances,” Kimberly says. “I want my students to be lifelong learners—curious movers and shakers. They will be the ones on the stage or in the seats; they will sustain and promote the arts for years to come.” By giving her students experiences that are authentic, collaborative, enduring, and above all, fun, she creates an environment in which future generations are not only excited about the arts, but are inspired to become artists themselves. As she tells us, “If it weren’t for FringeArts, an enthusiastic Shakespeare teacher, and two commedia aficionados, this collaboration would never have happened.”
Photos by Craig Melendes Photography