Five years ago, Stephen Haff, a music and
drama teacher at Bushwick High School, founded Real People Theater,
a company of young actors who rework classic and modern plays
into what they call the "Ghetto Remix."
After producing "Romeo y Julieta," "Hamlet-Prince of Brooklyn," "King Lear: Brooklyn Remix" and Canadian star George Walker’s "Tough," the group is now presenting "Ring Around the Royalty," RPT’s remix of the "Nibelungenlied," the same cycle of Germanic and Nordic myths Richard Wagner turned into "Der Ring des Nibelungen." RPT’s "Ring Around the Royalty" will be presented in the company’s home since last year, the Real People Theater, at 678 Hart St. between Central and Wilson avenues in Bushwick.
"Ring Around the Royalty," commissioned by the Nibelungen Spiel Feste in Worms, Germany, is about how Zigfried, a great warrior who has slain a dragon and stolen the dragon’s magic, goes to Burgundy to win the hand of Briemhild and gets her brother, Gunther, to help him in exchange for his assistance in Gunther’s courting of Brunhild, Queen of Ireland.
"The treachery of the two men and Zigfried’s use of magic cause tragic disaster. And the conflict between the two women in the text is staged on the steps of the Worms Cathedral," said Haff, who directs.
As of this date, RPT has performed "Tough" in Nova Scotia, "Ring Around the Royalty" in Germany, and other works in New York theaters such as The Flea, New Dramatists, Repertorio Espanol, The Collapsible Hole and The Performing Garage; and theaters, high schools and colleges in Los Angeles, Chicago and Toronto. RPT has a working and mentoring relationship with Bennington College, Fordham University, and The Wooster Group, which has adopted RPT as its official apprentice company. And the group’s work has attracted the attention of the press including The Village Voice, Germany’s Manheimer Morgen and Chicago’s The Reader.
But it wasn’t always that way. In fact, Haff told GO Brooklyn that RPT’s practice of using no more props than can fit into a plastic bag and a set consisting of two chairs and perhaps a table began as a necessity.
"The school gave us nothing," he said. "[The students] made creative use of their bodies and their voices. That’s an aesthetic we’re very proud of."
Necessity also played a big role in the founding of the group.
"When I was trying to teach ’Romeo and Juliet,’ the kids were rejecting it," Haff said. "I think it was because I was going about it in a very conventional way, without any intrinsic motivation. That changed when I asked them to rewrite the scene in their own words."
Haff’s students were so pleased with their remix they asked him if they could stage it.
"That was the first production. It was a combination of Shakespeare, Spanish and street language," said Haff. "Our next play was ’King Lear,’ and it was half Shakespeare and half street language.
Haff believes his students’ interpretations bring out their own originality and resiliency, and the experience of producing theatrical work "involves all of the intelligences that there aren’t otherwise outlets for at school - bodily, verbal, interpersonal and intrapersonal, and rhythmic.
"Working with classical writers is, in part, an apprenticeship for eventually working in a partnership. We always start with reading the entire work [for ’Ring Around the Royalty,’ RPT has used the Penguin Classics English translation]. The kids are very aware of how language expresses character and emotion. They’re extraordinary at finding the humor in serious texts like ’To Be or Not To Be.’ The kids are bringing who they are to the stage. That’s what keeps all theater alive, especially Shakespeare."
It’s still Haff, however, who chooses the material.
"The plays come from my experience and what I feel will be an exciting and promising match with the students," said Haff, a 38-year-old who grew up near Stratford, Ontario, the site of the famous Shakespeare festival.
RPT’s next project will be "Paradise Lost."
Real People Theater’s production of "Ring Around the Royalty" runs through Jan. 25, Saturday at 7 pm and Sunday at 3 pm. Running time is 60 minutes, followed by a discussion. Tickets are $5. The Real People Theater is located at 678 Hart St. between Central and Wilson Avenues in Bushwick. For reservations, call (212) 946-6475.