Note: This interview originally ran as part of our coverage of the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. Shakespeare High opens at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center on Friday, March 9, with a premiere event at Lincoln Center on Wednesday, March 7, which includes a screening followed by a Q&A with Alex Rotaru.

Tribeca: Please describe Shakespeare High in your own words.

Alex Rotaru: Shakespeare High is a film about the power of change, in the lives of teens, using theater—Shakespeare in particular. It’s a movie about the power of art disguised as a competition film.

I’ve always been interested in the power of art in my own life—it helped me isolate myself against Communism when I was growing up in Romania; Shakespeare, in particular. When I was 7 years old, the first book my mom ever gave me was an abridged version, in Romanian, of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and—I will never forget this—I came back to her and said, “Mom, this is the best book I’ve ever read.” And it wasn’t until I was 20 years old that I got to read it in English with a dictionary, and then another couple of years until I started really appreciating it. So seeing Shakespeare through the eyes of these kids was incredible.

I think we’re going through an education crisis. I don’t want to say my film is an advocacy piece, because I think it’s a really entertaining film, and hopefully the Tribeca audiences will agree. But it’s proof that with very low cost, and even with dead-white-guy words, you can empower kids forever. You can catch them early and give them the power to become what they perhaps didn’t realize they could be earlier. We had so much fun making the film.

Tribeca: What inspired you to tell the story? How did you learn about the Shakespeare festival featured in the film?

Alex Rotaru: A couple years ago, I was the co-producer and the main shooter and editor on a PBS special POV called The Hobart Shakespeareans, and that was the first time that I saw the power of Shakespeare in the classroom. I was interested in making more classroom- or education-themed documentaries, as many I’ve seen are amazing. What is it about kids in a classroom?

My producing partner Brad Koepenick told me about this competition that he had been a part of (he was now on the board), and I said, “Shakespeare classroom? I’ve done my bit, no need.” But he tricked me: “I need you to do me a favor and be on the jury of a small theater competition, and you’ll like it...” I went, and I walked around the whole day with tears in my eyes, because I saw these 15-, 16-, 17-year-old kids of all socio-economic backgrounds making this immense effort, and you could see it was so important to them. The schools were extremely disparate—from the the La Guardia-type school in LA, called LACHSA, where the kids are like Juilliard level, and other kids from other schools. [In other circumstances,] the kids would never meet in a million years, and here they were on equal footing, becoming friends and Facebook buddies. 

And it hit me, I guess because OR despite the fact that I grew up in a Communist country, there is a frustrated egalitarian deep inside me. And I live in Hollywood, which is probably the least egalitarian place on earth. So [a group of us] banded up and started making this movie. We soon realized there were all these alumni of the program, and chief among them was Kevin Spacey, who runs the Old Vic in London and is one of the most influential people in the world in arts education—he gives opportunities to young actors, dramatists, and filmmakers in so many ways.

Kevin had gone through this competition, and so had Val Kilmer, Mare Winningham, Richard Dreyfuss, and many other stars… Kevin came on board as an executive producer, and Trigger Street as well—his production company. We kind of just made it on a wing and a prayer. It took not very long, all things considered. I can’t talk about the money we spent making it, because my producing partners would kill me, but it’s about a tenth of what you would think.

Tribeca: Any advice for aspiring filmmakers?

Alex Rotaru: The conventional wisdom is: Don’t try to do everything yourself. But my advice is: Do everything yourself. Learn how to do everything yourself, because you probably will have to. And even when you stop having to do everything yourself, and can hire other people to do it, you will always be confident that you can talk to that person in their language.

Also, the trite truth of stick with it; don’t give up; if you succeed at first, be suspicious, because it’s not a good lesson. And if you don’t succeed, be happy. Because with every failure, it means success is closer.

Tribeca: What do you want audiences to take away from your film?

Alex Rotaru: I want audiences to walk away with a wonderful lump in their throat, with a feeling of sunny optimism, of yes we can, and it won’t cost a lot of money. I think it’s a character-driven, uplifting documentary. We got lucky in that the actual unfolding of the events—the things that you would hope would make for a great story—do happen here. I would like the audiences to walk away with a spring in their step, a lump in their throat, a tear in their eye, and a smile on their face.

Tribeca: So what do you think makes Shakespeare universal?

Alex Rotaru: First of all, his utter lack of originality when it comes to stories: I think the originality is in the telling, and not in the tale. He stole plots from every single source, from the Greeks, from the Romans, from the pre-Shakespearean Elizabethans, from the Medieval Italian and Scandinavian sources. So I think that the fact that he went into all these other cultures and grabbed all these stories that he had learned in school in Stratford-on-Avon, which he then re-offered in this incredibly poetic language.

The trick here is that the language has to be deciphered. On one hand, it’s very mellifluous—it attracts you and actors love beautiful words, so it lends itself to harmony—it’s almost like a dance, it’s almost hypnotic. (There’s something about iambic pentameter that’s probably sexier than any other meter.) So you have the music, but then there are layers. So if you’re hooked by the sound, and then you want to know what that word means, and you do a little research, or somebody tells you. It’s like a puzzle—a linguistic who-done-it. By the time you’re in there, you’re educating yourself; you’re satisfying your curiosity. And because of the universal value of the story, you’re always dealing with something you can relate to.

So a 7-year-old kid in Romania understood the plot of Midsummer Night’s Dream just as easily as a 35-year-old graduate student at Yale could. And we all have a lot more to study to understand more. And there is more.

Tribeca: What would your biopic be called?

Alex Rotaru: I think it would be called Quantum Leapfrog. Because I have been straddling and jumping from cultures, countries, continents, careers. And I still don’t know what I’m going to do next.

Tribeca: What makes Shakespeare High a must-see?

Alex Rotaru: It’s a must-see because this is such a horrible time for education, and I think it’s important to give hope to a whole generation of parents and educators. The kids will have fun at the movie the same way they have fun engaging in this activity that keeps them in school, and involved. It’s fun, it’s fun, but I think it’s important to remind educated, interested, socially conscious audiences of the fact that the principles they hold dear, when put into action, can give results. And these are some of the results.


Shakespeare High opens at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center on Friday, March 9, with a premiere event at Lincoln Center on Wednesday, March 7, which includes a screening followed by a Q&A with Alex Rotaru.

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