In most respects, William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" could hardly be less similar to S.E. Hinton's "The Outsiders." One is a fantastical comedy set in the courts and magical forests of ancient Greece; the other is a dark drama set in 1960s Oklahoma.
Yet each in its own way reflects the most important roles of theater in education, say the directors of productions of the two plays at Hellgate and Sentinel high schools.
"Some plays have a really important educational element, and some serve to reflect the real-life experiences and concerns of students," said Bolton Rothwell, Hellgate's theater teacher and the co-director (with his wife, Maribeth) of that school's production of "The Outsiders," which opened Thursday and continues through Saturday. "This play we selected for our fall production really is about the angst that exists in the hallways of every high school in this town. So I think the students can really relate to that and learn from its lessons through that connection."
With "The Outsiders," it is a connection that goes deeper than the page. Hinton was only 15 years old when she began writing the novel, which was inspired by real-life class conflict in her own high school in Tulsa. The book was completed and published in 1967, during her freshman year in college.
Since then, it has sold more than 14 million copies, been adapted into a 1983 film directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and been adapted for the stage by Christopher Sergel.
The play chronicles the conflict between two rival gangs at the school, known as the Greasers and the Socs (short for "Socials"). In the midst of the turf war, two of the Greasers save a group of children from a burning church; one of the young heroes is injured and eventually dies.
At a basic level, Rothwell noted that conflicts based on socioeconomic differences continue to play out in schools across the country today.
"It's kind of a classic conflict that everybody experiences to some degree in high school," said Rothwell. "So, as we've gone along with this production, we've had some really interesting conversations as a cast about, are you a Greaser or a Soc?"
Rothwell said that Hellgate's production, which features a cast of more than two dozen student actors, is enhanced by new lighting technology installed at the school in the past year.
"This new equipment has allowed us to create an interesting, lyrical production as opposed to a lot of furniture and traditional props and such," he said. "We've tried to make it very fluid and dynamic, with a lot of great effects, lighting, sound. They're all working in consort to create this theatrical experience.
"It's a real contact that we're trying to create for the students and for the audience," Rothwell added. "It's not educational in the sense of Shakespeare. This is very much a ‘now' play."
Over at Sentinel High School, drama teacher Katie Geoghegan and her own team of student actors and technicians are doing plenty to make their version of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" more "now" than usual.
Instead of setting the play in its original locale of Athens, Sentinel's production takes place in the subway of present-day London, where the play's heroine, Hermia, escapes with her lover, Lysander, and encounters a magical troupe of punk rockers.
"We were inspired by the British royalty and the wedding" of Prince William and Kate Middleton, said Geoghegan. "So we're having fun with the fairy characters. We've turned them into these interesting personalities one might discover in the subways of London."
While the setting is modern, Geoghegan said that the production otherwise adheres to Shakespeare's original language. That presents both great rewards and new challenges to her actors, she noted.
"With Shakespeare, you have all this wonderful language that can paint these incredibly vivid pictures, but it can also be a lot to follow," she said. "The actors have been doing an outstanding job of portraying those characters with their words and body language, and working hard to create other means of following the story for the audience."
Thus, for both actors and audience, Geoghegan feels the upcoming production will offer an educational and entertaining experience.
"I have an outstanding group of really brilliant students this year," she said. "So I really wanted to give the students an experience of how actors approach acting Shakespeare and the extra work you have to put in to master the language. And of course, for the audience, I wanted to give them an experience of one of the greatest plays ever written."