Henry High School – Totally immersed in Shakespeare’s King Lear

For the past two years Patrick Henry High (PHHS) English teacher Patrick Pelini has organized a field trip to the Guthrie for 9th graders; one year to Midsummer’s Night Dream and the other to Pericles. The process of thoroughly reading the play in class before the trip has proven to be very successful.

Last spring it was announced that King Lear, a personal favorite of Pelini’s, would be performed at the Guthrie. Pelini discussed the upcoming play with teacher colleague Carolyn Stammers; both believed that King Lear would be appropriate for the 12th grade International Baccalaureate curriculum, and all students at Henry. Principal Yusuf Abdullah endorsed the proposal to take the entire school body of students and staff to the Guthrie to view the performance, and prepare for the event through the model of “One school, one read.”

Laura Garcia, Director of Programs of Project Success, was contacted by PHHS staff and she, in turn, met with Jason Brown, a former co-worker at Project Success and current Education Director of the Guthrie Theater. Project Success is a nonprofit that uses professional theater as a tool to inspire students, a long-time part of their mission. They also have had a presence in classrooms and provide various experiential learning opportunities for students, their families and staff.

Together, Garcia and Brown addressed the real-life challenges of transporting an entire school program to the Guthrie, as well as strategies for school and community-wide discussion of the play in workshops and at home. After permission slips for students were returned, snacks and lunches were ordered.

The PHHS English department and Principal Abdullah financed classroom sets of the play plus additional copies for all staff. School-wide intercom announcements were made by Pelini for two weeks in Elizabethan English, and text from King Lear was read extensively in grades 9 and 12.

Assistant Principal Bjorn Lundgren said, “As I visited English classrooms this winter I saw evidence that students were reading, dissecting and struggling through the text. I saw students speaking parts out loud, listening to it on audiobook and reading Manga/Anime versions of the play. I saw English teachers challenging our students to work through the arcane vocabulary and language of Shakespeare, with the reward held out that when they saw the play it would be so amazing if they understood the text in advance.”

On the day of the play the halls of Henry buzzed with excitement and anticipation.

Students in grades 10-11 received a preproduction tutorial at the Guthrie. Twenty-four buses delivered snacks, lunches, and 800 students, 100 Henry staff, and 20 Project Success staff for the three-hour play. They entered the dark halls of the Guthrie, ascended to the 4th floor, and walked the famous Endless Bridge overlooking the Mississippi, Stone Arch Bridge and the Mill City Ruins, and they viewed their own city through a new lens. Assistant Principal Lundgren stated, “Our students seemed to transport to another world.”

Throughout the play students were highly engaged in the drama on stage. When there was a kiss they would swoon and exclaim “woooo”; and when a character was stabbed and another character’s eyes were gouged out the students gasped in horror. When Edmund addressed the audience in a soliloquy to ask which of the two evil sisters he should give his love, the students responded en masse, “Neither!”

In the following week actors from the Guthrie visited Henry classrooms to introduce themselves, discuss the craft of acting and the play. They interacted with students and praised them for their performance during the play. “The audience is the last character of the play. You had just the right level of involvement. This was our favorite audience,” concurred actors Jason Rojas and James Williams, and Guthrie Education Director Jason Brown.

The process of performing a play involves “everybody working together,” stated actor Rojas when addressing a group of students on April 30. Such was also the process in creating an engaged Henry audience for the play. The success of students and staff in working together to create community has given all — school, community and Guthrie Theatre — the hope that this can become an annual event.

Quotes of PHHS students:

“After reading King Lear, seeing the live production and having the amazing opportunity to meet actors, I felt more than ready to complete my IB English exams. This entire experience has been very enjoyable and will be something that I will remember forever.”  Princess Davis, Class of 2017

“When I first saw the play I was excited to see what they would perform. At the end of the play I loved what they did.” Aron Xiong, Class of 2020

“I thought it was really hectic at first cuz the whole school was going but once I really got into the play it felt like the book we had been reading came to life, as if I was there watching the events happening.” Melanie Lor, Class of 2020

“I think it was a whole new experience, not only in our minds but in real life.” Alejandro Rodriquez, Class of 2020


Written by Susan Breedlove and Tom Murray