A guy from the 16th century — and the woman who loves him — are making a difference at McMillan Magnet Middle School in north Omaha.
Kids who normally use street slang are learning to speak in antiquated English. A boy who wouldn't look up when he spoke is becoming a stage pro, belting his lines with gusto and engaging in a fierce sword fight.
Girls with images of pointy hats and Halloween are portraying a different type of witch, one who spouts such lines as “Fair is foul and foul is fair” in a spooky, foggy desert.
The guy, of course, is William Shakespeare. And his lady fair is Delaney “Patty” Driscoll, the educational outreach director for the Brigit St. Brigit Theatre and a widely known local actor who had a featured role in Alexander Payne's “Election.”
Driscoll long has had a passion for the Bard and, for the last few years, she has shared it with local kids.
Now she's back at McMillan, where she began to cultivate her love of the stage. Driscoll, who attended the school more than 40 years ago, is directing “McMillan's Macbeth” with participants in the Lions' Pride after-school program.
“I walk down the halls with the kids, and the memories fly back into my head,” she says — memories of school talent shows and music classes, among other things.
Rehearsals can be chaotic. It's hard to focus kids who have been working all day.
On a recent afternoon, the cast and crew were supposed to be listening to Driscoll's notes about their performance, but they were darting in and out of the curtain and chattering nonstop, despite several pleas for quiet. Most of them had spent the day crafting paragraphs to prepare for writing tests.
Despite a disastrous dress rehearsal last Friday, the group presented a credible “Macbeth” that evening, Driscoll said. The play is a modified version of the classic tale about the ill-fated Scottish king, with a few added scenes and several scenes eliminated.
The cast will repeat the show this Friday night.
Collective for Youth, which operates out-of-school programs in 25 Omaha district schools, invites people from the community to offer sessions in subjects such as etiquette, martial arts and juggling, among others. Driscoll had presented Shakespeare education programs for youths through the Nebraska Arts Council, and she prepared a proposal to do the same for the after-school crowd.
She said she didn't dare to hope they would place her at McMillan. She still lives five minutes from the school.
But the new Lions' Pride director, Dejuan Reddick, knew her as the woman who had needed computer help when he worked at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. And he thought the lack of a theater offering was a void in the Lions' Pride program.
He figured it could be life-changing for the kids to understand and get excited about Shakespeare.
That it was.
“Every day that I see them in rehearsal, it reminds me why I work with kids,” Reddick said. “They're learning a lot about themselves. They've shown great growth.”
Most of the 15 participants knew little about Shakespeare or the acting craft when they began, though several said they signed up for the program because they want an acting career. Thirteen-year-old Alex Brock, who plays Macbeth, had read the story in a graphic novel, but that was about it.
The first day the kids showed up, a fight broke out. After a while, Driscoll came in and yelled, “Cut!” She had staged the duel to get them interested.
“They'd thought it was real at first,” Reddick said.
Now Shakespeare's iambic pentameter rolls off several young tongues. Brock has his extensive part memorized, but many still struggle to remember lines. Red notes in the script translate Shakespeare's language to what the kids would understand today. When they began, Driscoll gave them tips on how to memorize.
Driscoll treats the kids like adult actors. When some of them want to critique the play, she cuts them off. She also chastises kids who feed lines to other actors. That's not their job.
“I am the director,” she tells them. “No actors get to direct.”
She expects both the actors and the stagehands to make their cues. She tells them when a scene doesn't work, asking for more energy and voice projection. She doesn't mince words: The banquet scene the other night, she told them recently, “was a train wreck.”
She's just as quick to praise. She singled out Alex in one recent session.
“How old are you? 13?” she asks her Macbeth. “I can't believe it's coming out of you. That was exactly right emotionally.”
Then she lauds the entire cast: “Great volume!”
The kids are engaged and eager.
Shakespeare is “magnificent,” said 12-year-old Tahja McMorris, a seventh-grader who is one of five girls sharing the part of Lady Macbeth.
“The poetry is just amazing.”
At one point, Driscoll considered cutting part of the play that wasn't going well, and the kids asked if they could work harder to salvage it. And after the witches performed the show's initial scene for the first time, they clamored to work in real fog. Driscoll bought an inexpensive fog machine.
Driscoll is working in partnership with two staffers from the Rose Theater, Kelsey Celek and Kathryn Stahl. Longtime Omaha thespian Terry Doughman worked with Alex and Deonte Daniels, who plays Macduff, on the fencing scenes.
Theater will be an option for Lions' Pride participants again next semester. Several of the girls expressed an interest in “Romeo and Juliet,” although the boys weren't too jazzed about that. Driscoll said she's considering doing a play that combines Shakespeare and “Star Wars.”
As Reddick predicted, the young actors learned far more than an appreciation for acting, historical times and a great playwright.
Deonte, for one, learned not to give up. He said he practiced his lines with his script to see if he knew them, and if he didn't, he practiced some more. When he started, Driscoll and Doughman said, you could barely hear his lines. Now, he projects across the stage and is even offering suggestions to improve the fight scenes.
For Tahja, the experience was transforming.
“I've never been this confident before,” she said.