Project SUCCESS brings MPS students to “King Lear” — at home and abroad

Eight Minneapolis Public Schools students spent a week in London this past fall thanks to Project SUCCESS, an organization that provides MPS students with enrichment experiences and monthly goal-setting workshops. Photo courtesy Project SUCCESS

UPDATE: The students who traveled to London made a short film reflecting on “King Lear” and their travel experiences. You can see it below:

It’s not too often that high school students get to experience Shakespeare in the home country of The Bard himself.

That’s exactly what eight Minneapolis Public Schools students got to do this past fall, thanks to the local nonprofit Project SUCCESS.

The organization took the eight students to London this past November, where they saw a production of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” as well as a play that dramatized a meeting between Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke called “One Night in Miami.” The students also took a backstage tour and acting class at Shakespeare’s Globe and went sightseeing around London.

“It was absolutely amazing,” Washburn 12th-grader Bella Dawson said.

The students are using the experience to guide their fellow Minneapolis students this month as Project SUCCESS brings more than 4,000 MPS high school students to the Guthrie Theater to see “King Lear.” The eight students each wrote a spoken-word poem, which the Guthrie staff recorded for a video that will be shown in the high schools as a post-play conversation starter.

Project SUCCESS uses these theater experiences as tools to inspire students, help them look at real-life issues, develop 21st-century skills and demonstrate they are members of a larger community, according to its website. The nonprofit also hosts monthly classroom workshops at schools across Minneapolis, takes students on college tours and Boundary Water Canoe Area trips and puts on student performances.

Its goal is to help young people dream about their future, set goals and take steps to get there, Project SUCCESS founder and Executive Director Adrienne Diercks said.

Diercks founded the organization more than 20 years ago, starting with a workshop at North High. It’s since grown into 17 schools and has 40 theater partners in the Twin Cities.

The nonprofit will invite more than 12,000 Minneapolis students and their families to at least eight professional theater performances this year at no cost. The organization also provides no-cost childcare and transportation to families who need those services.

Themes of loyalty, forgiveness

“King Lear” tells the story of a British king who decides to relinquish his crown and divide his kingdom among his three daughters, according to the Guthrie Theater. Project SUCCESS is focusing on the play’s themes of loyalty and forgiveness in its discussions with students. It’s asking students to examine what levels of loyalty and forgiveness they are willing to give different people in their lives.

Lear’s two eldest daughters were out for his money, not his love, Dawson said. The youngest daughter was the only one standing with him at the end of the play.

Dawson said she and the other students saw a “very modern spin” on “King Lear” while in London, with the actors wearing everyday clothes.

“Their interpretation of it was a little abstract,” she said, “but I think I enjoyed it.”

She said “One Night in Miami” was a highlight of the trip, noting that the actors stayed and talked with the students after the show.

Southwest 11th-grader Claire Van Note said her favorite experience on the trip was going to Shakespeare’s Globe. The group went to the theatre early in the morning, when no one else was there.

Van Note said the students didn’t know each other before meeting at the airport but that the weeklong trip was “so much fun.”

“We all gained confidence,” she said.

Dawson said all of the students have taken the experience back to their schools in some way. She said she has talked about her experience of seeing “One Night in Miami” with fellow members of Washburn’s Blackbox Theater program.

The students were in London during the week of the U.S. presidential election, which Dawson said was a welcome relief from the political noise.

“Coming back to that was very disappointing,” she said.

Project SUCCESS worked with the administration at each school to select students for the experience. The trip came less than a year after the organization took a group of nine female students to Washington D.C. last school year to see “Pericles.”

Diercks said the organization found sponsors for the London trip who had lived there and loved theater as well as Project SUCCESS.

“I think it’s the beginning of many of these experiences to come,” she said.

In its monthly workshops, Project SUCCESS facilitators talk about upcoming theater shows but primarily focus on goal setting, planning for the future and helping students develop skills such as risk-taking and confidence, according to Communications Associate Amy Stubblefield Barthel. Every school has one designated facilitator who hosts the workshops, which focus on life after high school for 11th- and 12th-graders.

The organization recently wrapped up a production of the musical “Annie” at Marcy Open School in which 81 students participated, Diercks said. The musicals are open to all students, and teachers report students raising their GPAs and becoming more motivated after participating, according to the Project SUCCESS website.

“You’re going to work hard, and at the end of it, throughout the challenges, you’re going to see what success feels like,” Diercks said.

The organization also offers 150 middle school students the chance to go on a weeklong trip to the Boundary Waters each summer where they canoe, cook and disconnect from everyday life.

“It’s a chance for them to connect with each other and practice teamwork in nature, without everyday distractions like technology,” Stubblefield Barthel said in an email.

The organization is 90-percent privately funded, according to Stubblefield Barthel, with funds primarily coming from foundations, schools, individuals and corporations.

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