“The concept of the Stella Adler Studio—that being a better actor is equal to being a better human—is the base of this program,” says director Kern McFadden of the Summer Shakespeare program he leads.
Founded by Stella Adler Studio of Acting in 2006, Summer Shakespeare is a five-week theatre intensive for inner-city teens living at or below the poverty level. Watching the 22 students in the class of 2017, the program offers a fairly typical theatre camp-style schedule and culminates in the performance of an abbreviated piece of Shakespeare. This summer the students will put on A Midsummer Night’s Dream August 11 and 12.
Nicole Onwuka is one of the students in this year’s program and Midsummer’s Puck. A 17-year-old from Queens, Onwuka participates in her high school’s theatre courses and extracurriculars during the school year, but craved theatre during her summers. “Every summer I would feel like I’m missing something,” she says. “June to September it’s an empty space and I felt I wasn’t growing enough.”
While Onwuka wanted to expand her knowledge of theatre and cultivate her acting skills, just as McFadden and the Studio intended, Onwuka has become a better actor as a product of her self-discovery. “I didn’t expect to learn a lot about myself, [but] I learned a lot about how I am as an actor and as a human,” she says. “When I was little, I did acting because I was very shy. I would hide behind the characters. But really, you’re not hiding behind the characters, you’re showing someone else’s truth, but you have to know your truth first.”
For McFadden, a breakthrough like this is the type of victory he hopes for. “The biggest thing is about each individual student finding their voice,” he says. “When you’re this age, you’re often reminded to be quiet or that you’re not important, but letting them find their voice through a character or an [onstage] situation is a big win.”
Each day, he works to foster an environment to help his students trust themselves and each other.
But the director also hopes he makes Shakespeare accessible and relatable for these young actors. “It’s something that was written with everyone in mind,” he says. “The reason we do this is to put a mirror up to nature, as Shakespeare says, and bring the world here. So when we see these students open up and think something different,” the program has succeeded.
“I was kind of scared of [Shakespeare],” admits Onwuka—and she is one of the students with previous theatre exposure, unlike many of her peers. McFadden works hard to help his students see the connections of Shakespeare in their own lives and to the world around them.
“Just that moment of realization is the first step and it’s terribly exciting,” he says. Looking at the faces of his students, he’s just a mirror to the world around him.
To learn more about Stella Adler Studio and its programs, visit StellaAdler.com.