In Conversation with Young Shakespeare Workshop’s Darren Lay

Young Shakespeare Workshop production of Titus Andronicus Courtesy of Young Shakespeare Workshop

The Young Shakespeare Workshop, a free program celebrating 25 years, is a Seattle-based non-profit that serves youth from Seattle and regions beyond. The seven-week summer First Year program draws teenagers from all walks of life to study and perform Shakespeare – sonnets, speeches, scenes – giving them the opportunity to celebrate the power of the human voice and illuminate experience. YSW was awarded the nation’s highest honor for out-of-school youth arts training in 2011, the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award.

We sat down recently with Darren Lay, a professional actor, director and teaching artist, that has been directing the program since 1998, to discuss Shakespeare’s power, the essential nature of art and ways you can help.

How did you get involved with the Young Shakespeare Workshop?

My love of Shakespeare began when I was a teenager in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It is incredible to me that a city like Seattle, priding itself on the arts, has public high schools without theatre programs. After moving to Seattle I joined with Eric Ray Anderson, a fellow working actor, and Kimberly White, to take up the mantle of the Young Shakespeare Workshop from Edward Payson Call, who began the program. I was not thinking I would still be at it 19 years later.

What’s the demographic profile of those kids you serve?

Kids of every description and stripe have participated in the program over the years—poor kids, rich kids, white kids, kids of color, straight kids, queer kids, religious kids, non-religious kids, kids with supportive parents, kids without parents, English language learners, immigrants, refugees, conservative, liberal. It is astonishing how wide a range of people Shakespeare can bring together.

Is selling Shakespeare to kids a hard sell?

It can be hard sometimes, if the context and situation is not supportive, but once kids get up on their feet and perform Shakespeare with each other as opposed to just reading it and have the time to begin to own the words for themselves, and see Shakespeare as ‘their artist,’ writing for them, then Shakespeare the brilliant poet and truth-teller does all the work. Shakespeare’s works easily sells itself given the right environment.

What can Shakespeare’s plays give kids?

Shakespeare gives kids a chance to step directly into the thoughts and feelings, relationships and circumstances that intrigue us all, a chance to experience intensely nuanced reflection that can relate to your own life experience or circumstances of those around you which acts to nourish a more intelligent and observant understanding of us all. The safe remove of art engages teens’ empathy and thoughtful weighing of human interaction, incredibly valuable to teenagers shaping their own identity and voice. Theatre is such a deeply worthy and important human invention for examining the world and our place in it.

What are your favorite Young Shakespeare Workshop memories?

There are really too many to choose from. Most revolve around performances when students transcend “the ordinary of Nature’s sale-work” and we are all compelled to marvel at Shakespeare’s brilliance. One should never mistake Shakespeare’s brilliance for your own, but sometimes it is lovely to imagine it is yours for a while, and you do come away feeling as if some of it might have rubbed off on you in some way during the insane funniness of Midsummer’s rough mechanicals, or the brutal and terrifying word induced pindrop silences in Othello, or the hauntingly beautiful Richard II as either performer or audience member.

What can people do to help Young Shakespeare Workshop?

We are always cash poor and, of course, the absolute best way anyone can help is to encourage that young person you know who needs that extra boost of confidence to contact us and join an often wonderfully life-changing community.

A brief scene from the Workshop: