James Lambert: Spreading Shakespeare Across Cultures

What is the One World Shakespeare project?

Lambert group of students“One World Actors Centre” is a local theater company that specializes in community theater performances. It was started as a non-profit a few years ago because there was a perceived lack of theater and live performance in Kuwait. The company performs plays and musicals throughout the year, all inside Kuwait, and every spring they take on one or two Shakespeare plays. As far as I know, they are the only ongoing non-profit, non-government sponsored theater company in Kuwait, so when I heard (during my first year teaching here at the American University of Kuwait) that they would be putting on Julius Caesar, I contacted the director, Alison Shan Price, to see if I could get involved in any way. Alison’s enthusiasm precedes her planning, so she said yes and expected we would come up with something by the play’s performance.

Lambert Service Learning Shakespeare Assignment-1 copyThen, when I was putting together my syllabus for ENGL 307: Shakespeare, I contacted her again about the option of us getting involved. She mentioned that the performance of JC would be at the British Embassy and that they wanted to do a “Shakespeare Festival” during the week of the play, but she also wanted extras for the Roman crowd scenes. She expected my students would be the extras. I told her I might be able to encourage students, through a class assignment, to put together the Shakespeare festival, but that I wasn’t going to guarantee anything with their acting skills. By sheer force of director, my students acted in the crowd scenes despite themselves. In fact, she came into my classroom beforehand to give an acting workshop to all my students. This was in addition to their work on the festival.

To answer the original question, the One World Shakespeare Project was a thing that we attempted to come up with after our initial plan to get my AUK students involved. The project continues to morph (our new plan is to take the festival and plays to the schools, but this has been difficult), but for now it continues to be that AUK students put on the Shakespeare festival while the One World Actors Centre performs the play.

How are your students involved?

Lambert Shakespeare tableMy students are assigned in groups to create festival “booths” and activities that occur during the week of the performance. (see assignment sheet attached). So, for two years now (our third year was prohibited for safety and security reasons, but we are back on again this year, I hope), my Shakespeare students put together booths and activities that would educate theater-goers about the many different ways to understand the play. For example, when the play being performed was Much Ado About Nothing, one group of students researched the Italian notion of the courtier and presented a game in which each attendee identified whether they had the traits of a Castiglione courtier. Another group put together a booth that discussed the Early Modern idea of friendship and love, and informed the public about how that discourse influences Shakespeare’s play.

Lambert students in costumesThe students come up with the activities and execute them, then they do a write-up all about how this project helped them understand Shakespeare’s role in a local community (as well as how this project helped them understand Shakespeare—more academic results, perhaps). I can’t emphasize enough how interesting this has been. I am currently writing an article detailing the many strange dynamics that occur in doing this kind of civic engagement in this particular culture and community, but I can just say that the results are usually positive for students and theater-goers.

What impact has the collaboration had (on you, on your students, on larger communities, on the world)?

Let me start with drawbacks: Because the plays are performed at the British Embassy, there is a select group that gets to participate in the festival. The Embassy is open to anyone, but it still checks passports and IDs at the door, so it is not as if this is a public space for us to put on our festival. We have been trying to fix this so we can go out to schools, but the student demands and schedules create problems for us. Of course, any civic engagement attempt will be laden with logistical problems, so I am used to that. However, last semester for my poetry of the Renaissance class, we tried to do something similar in which we work with One World’s production or Romeo and Juliet. We had a lot of good booths and activities planned, but suddenly the British Embassy got cold feet about my students’ participation because of increased security concerns with ISIS and other terrorist activities. We were pushed out and had to recreate the class without that activity that so many students have come to count on.

Lambert young womenBut there are a number of positive ways to think about the impact this collaboration has had: My students find this activity helps them understand why “Shakespeare” is somewhat of a brand or sign itself, and they often comment how they feel important just by participating in something bearing his name. This produces fascinating conversations and papers about a kind of cultural imperialism that comes with traditional western notions of “high culture.” This is also something I am writing about in my article.

Some students did a project in which they went around to public spaces and asked random people what they thought of Shakespeare (they asked in Arabic and English). They filmed the responses and created a short film about impressions of Shakespeare in Kuwait. What they found is that many people knew the name, all recognized the name was “important,” but few people could name why or how. The understanding of education and cultural cache in a community like this (Arab, Eastern) brings into relief interesting ideas of how western culture infiltrates in ways that are perhaps not as forceful as one might think. Also, many of my students soon started working with Alison on her other productions after they realized what a wonderful world theater inhabits.

Lambert ShakespeareFor me, this collaboration brings not only Shakespeare’s plays but Shakespeare scholarship alive for my students. All of their booths and activities are produced and created based on research they have done themselves. That is more than enough for me.

Finally, for the community it is important to see young energetic coed students passionately participating in the project of education in a realm outside the halls of the university. That may sound cliché, but I can’t mention enough how public face operates in our local culture here, and when respected students are advocating for theater, learning, and interaction, the public comes closer to understanding the need and purpose that western education provides. That might also be a somewhat imperialist view, but it is absolutely true.


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