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Stratford-upon-Housatonic

“We few. We happy few.
We band of brothers, for he today
That sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother.”

-William Shakespeare; Henry V

Stratford-upon-Avon and Stratford, Connecticut, have more in common than you might think. Both are now havens for all things Shakespeare, thanks to The Mighty Quinn Foundation. It’s the legacy of a young artist, Quinn Rooney, who exited life’s stage at age 19 after living a rich and rewarding life in the arts. Now, his dream endures in Connecticut, thanks to a troupe of players that The Bard himself would admire.

Long-time Stratford residents may be familiar with the 1950s-era American Shakespeare Festival Theatre, vacant and in disrepair since 1989. With the community’s help, The Mighty Quinn Foundation has seen to renovating the grounds and salvaging props from the original theater. To fulfill Quinn Rooney’s wish, they have overseen a complete resurrection of the program with an educational overlay. That effort revolves around some very dedicated people.

Rooney’s close friends, Kate Doyle and Molly Lyons, worked tirelessly researching the hottest trends in Shakespeare theatrics (yes, he’s a trending topic). They came up with the idea of an ensemble/rotating repertory under the name Shakespeare Academy @ Stratford – known as SA@S. The Mighty Quinn Foundation was on board to make it happen, with a simple mission: to give students the best summer of their lives.

This one-of-a-kind program will open its doors on June 29 to 14 students and four returning alumni for a second season. For six weeks, college-aged students from as close as the Shoreline and, likely, as far as California will come together to form an ensemble, authentically Shakespearean in form. The performances, Henry V and Twelfth Night, will take place from August 1 through August 9 in rotating repertory. Last year’s inaugural season featured Hamlet and Cymbeline, both well received by the community.

“The town was over the moon about this,” says Kate Doyle, assistant program director. “They wanted to help out in any way they could. So we had two open-mic nights to introduce the inaugural ensemble to the greater community. Even Westport and New Haven residents were ecstatic.”

“We can’t wait to get back together and meet the new students,” says Colleen Sullivan, artistic & program director, who has a background in Shakespeare ensemble and contemporary theater making. “It’s an intensive environment, spending six weeks growing close as a family. It’s humbling.” Students study, work and rehearse eight hours a day, six days a week in the historic Nicoll-Benjamin House (known locally as the “White House”). It’s on the same grounds of the old theater, though the original stage is no longer in working condition.

What sets SA@S apart from other Shakespeare education programs is the combination of Shakespeare Study, Contemporary Ensemble Training and Repertory Performance. Also unique is the emphasis on making one’s own stage. Sullivan says, “With the ensemble, it’s all about the actors and [team] problem solving. There’s no traditional stage, tech crew, or designers. We all contributed to make everything ourselves. There’s no other program in America like it right now.”

They’ll also live, exercise, eat, laugh and cry together – a true test of human interaction. “The residential aspect was a challenge, but very worth it. This is great for the town and the academy, seeing as a bunch of the students live with my family,” says Susan Wright, Rooney’s mother and co-founder of The Mighty Quinn Foundation.

“Put people in a situation [where they’re together all the time] and you either love or hate each other. We all loved each other,” says Nate Currier of San Rafael, California. “And the Rooneys were the best hosts. Everything just went right last year.” Nate is returning this summer as a member of the alumni company to perform in an interpretation of Romeo and Juliet, and to assist and mentor new students as needed. “I’m excited to make this play into something I personally enjoy,” Currier says.

Kelly Letourneau of Holden, Massachusetts, is another returning alum. “It’s like… okay, you’re here. You’ve met everyone. Now it’s time to run a show,” she says. “I’m so excited to be back in the most supportive theater-making atmosphere.” Letourneau is currently wrapping up her semester abroad, where she’s been studying Shakespeare in Performance at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.

Regarding the alumni company, Wright also says, “It says a lot that four students are coming back. It means they truly enjoyed the experience and giving back to the community. It really is a beautiful thing, and an honor to Quinn.”

In terms of predictions and future goals, Sullivan and Doyle agree that the local community continues to be a priority. And they wish to grow the program more fully in the seasons to come.

“We want to build relationships with other organizations around the country and internationally,” says Sullivan. In addition, SA@S has already connected with a group of students from Cambridge University in the UK. They will be traveling to Connecticut this September to perform at the White House and at Stratford High School.

To young artists and aspiring performers, Sullivan advises, “Don’t give up. The poets and artists of the world are so important.” To her dear friend Quinn Rooney, Doyle expresses nothing but gratitude. “Thank you, Quinn. You are our lucky star. The community is moved by your story. Everything has worked out for us, and you have set the perfect example of [camaraderie and performance] for all of us.”

For an overview of this year’s lineup, staff bios and highlights from last year’s inaugural season, visit www.Shakespeare-Academy.Squarespace.com. Follow the conversation at www.facebook.com/ShakespeareAcademyStratford.

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