FOLSOM, CA - The Shakespeare Academy at Empire Oaks Elementary School wrapped up their production of The Tempest with a packed house at the Three Stages theater in Folsom.
Performing on a professional stage was a thrill for the young actors who have spent the last seven months in exhilarating and exhausting rehearsals.
Academy founder and retired teacher Barbara Harris was looking for a new way to bring the arts into education 15 years ago and heard about the Shakespeare academy model in the UK.
"When you want to do something, you pick the best," Harris said. "When you make, a dress you pick the best material. You want to expose them to the best things and I thought, 'What's better than Shakespeare?'"
Harris inquired about the UK program and found a school in Georgia already using it. She consulted with program directors there to build the Folsom academy. She also changed the traditional spoken word Shakespeare to a musical model.
"Music helps tremendously," Harris explained. "When you do it with music, they go along humming the songs and they get the same ideas. When they get to high school and college, they remember."
There are six plays rotated in each year so academy members and elementary school students get maximum exposure to the most popular Shakespeare works by the time they move on to middle school.
Private donations pay for everything from costumes to venue rental.
"The funding for the arts just gets tougher and tougher," Harris said. "We do not charge kids anything to come to the performance and we don't charge the kids who are in the show anything. I don't want someone not trying out because they won't be able to afford something like a costume."
Although this is the first year on a professional stage, Harris said letters from kids who had seen the show drove her to look for a larger venue.
"The letters I got were heart wrenching. Some of these kids had never been to a play before," Harris said. "Some had never been on a field trip. They drew pictures and asked us to come back. We thought there must be something we can do."
A well-timed donation from Bank of America helped the academy achieve the goal of reaching more students in a larger venue this year.
With another production wrapped for the school year, Harris jokingly said she will consider how to proceed next year.
"Its exhausting," Harris said with a laugh. "Each year we say, 'oh we can't do this anymore, but it's the kids.' This morning when they all showed up, it was all worth it. When I saw the look on their faces, it was worth it."