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Edgar Allen Poe is a name most of us know. Most of us probably read some of his works in high school, and they may have been some of our favorite stories (short and creepy!), but he’s been dead a looooong time. Since 1849, to be exact. So, why teach him in schools? More importantly, how do educators convince today’s students that he’s worth learning about?
A group of young actors from Theatre Squared, a professional theater located in Fayetteville, Arkansas, think they’ve hit on a successful formula. For the last five years, they have been performing original shows around the state, and 2015 marks the second time they toured The Poe Show. The first year, 2011, they visited 24 schools around the state – this year they’re scheduled to perform the hour-long production at more than seventy.
Morgan Hicks, co-writer of the show and Director of Education and Program Development at Theatre Squared, says the idea of the tour came from the knowledge that most students in the state have very limited access to the arts. “Northwest Arkansas students are close enough to travel to the theaters that we have [in the area], but…other parts of the state have more challenges. We wanted to do a show that could be thrown into a van and traveled to the schools and could be performed in cafeterias or gyms or libraries.”
Before they got down to writing, Theatre Squared surveyed English teachers across the state. One of the things they learned was that although there is no standard reading list for all high school students in Arkansas, Shakespeare and Poe are among the top authors covered in most schools. “We thought that was a great coincidence, because we love Poe.” says Hicks, “He’s a fantastic American character with a rich back story and amazing material to play with.”
Certainly, the life story of E.A. Poe reads a lot like some of the most popular current fiction and television shows marketed to Young Adult readers. He is most well-known for his macabre short stories… dark tales of misery and longing, suicide, murder, and evil characters. He is considered to be the inventor of the “detective fiction” genre, and he loved using a fantastical backdrop in which to set his action and characters. His own life even reads like a horror story; he was an orphan at a young age, dropped out of college in debt, used an assumed name to enter the military, and married his 13-year-old cousin. When he died at the age of 40, he was rumored to have been a drug addict and alcoholic.
Okay, maybe it wouldn’t be so hard to get teens interested in this guy after all.
The show is also performed free-of-charge for the schools, eliminating obstacles that often show up around the conference table as school districts are allocating funding to the arts in far-flung areas of the state. To that end, the tour is funded by a grant from the Arkansas Arts Council, as well as sponsors for the theater that are specifically allocated toward their educational efforts.
The shows performed by this traveling troupe of actors (they also tour with The History Show, The Math Show and The Science Show) are each designed with a cross-curricular tie-in, with the intention to make them entertaining and accessible, while still delivering content-specific information and challenging students to think about the material in new ways. Hicks explains, “We think the best way to accomplish this goal is through humor and entertainment.” Last year, approximately 15,000 students were exposed to their unique brand of education and humor, and they expect to exceed 20,000.
The cast and crew are one in the same, and are made up of Kara George (who doubles as the production’s stage manager), Thomas Hunter, Asa Tims, and Caden Worley as Poe. Jordan Haynes and Hicks are the co-writers for the production.
They are planning two more shows to add to the rotation that will be presented over the next several years, a show about Shakespeare, and a poetry show. If you have high school students, be sure to ask them if they’ve been visited by a famous dead writer recently.
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