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Experiencing Shakespeare

Experiencing Shakespeare

In a joint venture between the English and Theater departments, freshmen gain support and learn valuable lessons from this donor-funded initiative

“After I finished singing, I quickly realized I had made a mistake and I had to tell myself ‘you'll laugh about this someday’. " 

That’s sophomore Nick Freedson describing a theater mishap that involved stealing another character’s lines---or in this case, singing another character’s song. It wasn’t so much a thespian mistake as it was a learning experience for him during his first year at UC Santa Barbara.

“The mentality at UCSB is ensemble oriented,” commented Maddie Martin ’17, theater major and student mentor. “Nobody has to fail. We’re not trying to weed people out.” 

That approach is a novel one compared to the cutthroat acting industry, which is keen to handout rejections. Instead, UCSB’s “Experiencing Shakespeare” course focuses on merging English and Theater to provide an interactive learning experience. It’s a class funded by the Arnhold Literature and Performance Initiative, and it’s blending literature and acting like never before. 

“The course went about as well as we could have dreamed,” reflected James Kearney, English professor and co-instructor for “Experiencing Shakespeare”. Kearney talked about the genesis of the class, which was a shared vision between philanthropist John Arnhold ’75, the English and theater departments, the Freshman Summer Start Program, and Dean John Majewski of Humanities and Fine Arts. “It was a pedagogical engine,” Kearney observed.

The class is unique not only because of its interdisciplinary nature but also because of its integration of mentors. Seniors like Maddie Martin serve as peer advisors who encourage incoming freshmen to take chances and build confidence along the way.

“There are many lessons from the theater starting with ‘the show must go on’,” says Irwin Appel, theater professor and co-instructor for “Experiencing Shakespeare”.  Taking risks and generating solutions are just a few examples of what’s learned in this course, and it’s asking students to deeply engage with the material.  The difference of meeting in a theater rather than a classroom, for instance, shifts perspectives and stokes creative fires. 


Experiencing Shakespeare


“My favorite memory [from ‘Experiencing Shakespeare’] was doing my creative project,” said Freedson, now a declared theater major. “One person did a rap of ‘Othello’ to the ‘Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ theme,” he recalled. Other projects included makeup palettes for different Shakespearean characters; turning “Much Ado About Nothing” into a math equation; and an “Othello” adaptation set in East Los Angeles.

“It’s amazing how far people stretch their projects,” said Martin. “Learning is taking the material and expanding upon it.”

“The experience was profound,” observed Appel.  “Mr. Arnhold’s generosity spanned not only the [‘Experiencing Shakespeare’] course but also provided scholarships and mentorship opportunities.” 

Indeed, the Arnhold Initiative provided scholarships for students in addition to stipends for instructors and four graduate teaching assistants.

“I received a scholarship,” Freedson shared, “which allowed me to enjoy the class without worrying extensively about the cost.”

Added Martin, who was also a scholarship recipient: “I’m very thankful for the Arnholds. We wouldn’t be able to do what we do. [It’s meant] a lot of experiences for a lot of people.” 

Altogether, the course has meant a lot for students who may have considered Shakespeare’s work highbrow and inaccessible.  “Experiencing Shakespeare” has helped to shift those long-held beliefs, infusing modern lessons into this introductory course. 

"I was amazed by the change in confidence of these students,” remarked Kearney. “My hope is that, after this course, they take that confidence with them to the rest of their college career and beyond."