In Leadership on Stage and Screen, students studied Greek plays, Shakespeare, contemporary American works, and a variety of genres in theater and in films. But class concepts truly came to life when students were tasked with producing a play as part of the Jepson Shakespeare Project.

The Jepson Shakespeare Project is based on the film “Shakespeare Behind Bars,” about an inmate rehabilitation program of the same name. Through the program, convicted criminals spend nine months producing a Shakespeare play, along the way learning interpersonal and life skills that encourage a successful reintegration into society. The program's founder, Curt Tofteland, will also speak on campus in January as part of the Jepson Leadership Forum.

Kristin Bezio, assistant professor in the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, used the success of Shakespeare Behind Bars as an inspiration for her own class, which sought to find a way to implement a similar model in Richmond. The class worked with junior high students from five different Jepson partner organizations to prepare a performance of the same play featured in the Shakespeare Behind Bars film—“The Tempest.”

“Fine arts programs are being cut from schools, so these students wouldn’t get to do a play in junior high,” Bezio says. “Part of it, too, is to encourage interaction between University students and kids that they would not otherwise interact with because of the very different demographics.

“They also learned about the process of putting on a production and seeing how that relates to leadership. It is one thing to watch a documentary about it. It’s a very different thing to actually do it yourself.”

The performance took place in November in Cousins Theater at the Modlin Center for the Arts. Bezio says the junior high students were brought to Richmond so that they experience performing in a real theater.

“They really seemed to enjoy it,” Bezio says. “We did full theater makeup for them. We had lights, we had sound, we had props. There was a lot of figuring things out and going with the flow, but I think it was a very good experience.”

The University students also were asked to relate the project to leadership theories they learned in the classroom. They had to analyze not just what they saw while rehearsing the play, but the leadership dynamics in their group, between the class and the junior high students, and within the leadership of the partner organizations.

Hannah Rhodes, ’13, who is majoring in leadership studies and theatre, says they faced real leadership challenges while working with the students. “We had to adopt a leadership role in a completely new environment and convince the students to let us lead them,” she says. “We had the opportunity to experiment with different ways of leading and directing.”

The experience also served as an opportunity for Rhodes to explore the intersection of her majors with her interest in civic action and social justice. “The performing arts can be much more than entertainment and this course certainly supports that idea,” she says. “We read and examined various texts and films, all of which take a stand on matters of ethics and leadership.”

Bezio says that this intersection is a crucial element of Leadership on Stage and Screen, something she hopes students will take away as they begin to understand how film and theater can be used to engage in leadership. “Theater and participation, the written object of the play, watching a film or making a film—these could all be ways to convince people of your opinion or be a way to initiate social change.”