The teenage actors in Shakespeare High are factory-built to stoke fires of envy in the heart of any secondary school drama teacher. Deeply dedicated, gifted with more than their fair share of talent and ingenuity, and electrified by their growing mastery of the craft, these are lifers-in-the-making experiencing the first flush of what many hope will become a professional career. The documentary follows these actors as they rehearse for and compete at the Drama Teachers Association of Southern California (DTASC) Shakespeare Festival, where they stage condensed, stripped-down renditions of canonical Shakespeare works.
Five schools are represented in the film, with ex-gangbangers and drug dealers on one end of the spectrum (PUC Charter) and the well-heeled spawn of TV writers on the other (Los Angeles County High School for the Arts). Some of the schools have a reputation for their DTASC-winning ways (Hesperia, situated in an avowedly isolated town in the Mojave Desert) or for their famous alumni (Chatsworth High, alma mater of Kevin Spacey and Mare Winningham). One school is just for the ladies (Notre Dame Academy, who bring us an extremely fem-positive A Midsummer Night’s Dream).
After we get a look at the performers’ often hardscrabble lives and doze through Spacey and Winningham’s well-intentioned visit to Chatsworth, it’s off to DTASC. It’s a highly caffeinated affair, where the controlled chaos offstage is nearly matched by the febrile mise-en-scène concocted by our late-adolescent heroes. With the notable exception of the purists at LACHSA, most of the troupes stage their Shakespeare snippets as highly-choreographed, high-energy montages, with plenty of broad slapstick and over-the-top elocution. There is a fair amount of rapping, too. Shakespeare High director Alex Rotaru handles the DTASC sequences well. He’s able to hold onto the film’s narrative thread while capturing the juiced-up excitement and anticipation of hundreds of exhibitionist teens, providing detailed coverage of the schools’ individual performances and making some sense of the festival’s convoluted judging process.
Rotaru, in fact, displays a capable, understated hand throughout. He’s likely aware that Shakespeare High doesn’t exactly break the mold for documentary filmmaking. It has a simple enough story to tell, and it does so with few frills: the darker elements (and there are surprisingly many of them) are presented matter-of-factly and with an admirable lack of sensationalism, while the students’ highs and lows come with a minimum of editorial commentary. These kids are born for the stage, after all, and they’re happy to speak for themselves.
All of the students we hear from are remarkably astute and articulate, and they love holding forth and goofing around for the cameras. But what often stands out during the interview segments is the quiet desperation that goes hand-in-hand with intense commitment. Drama gives these teens a reason to get up in the morning, but it frightens them with the grip it has on their psyche. It teaches them priceless lessons about who they are and how to interact with the people around them, yet they are acutely aware that by pursuing it they could end up socially isolated or financially desperate. Rotaru allows us to be excited for his protagonists even as we fret for them, and it’s with a mix of exhilaration and dread that we watch them try to pin down a future that hovers just beyond reach.