That very thing is happening for a group of students at Nottingham High School. They were introduced to The Comedy of Errors through a hip-hop take called The Bomb-itty of Errors, currently playing at Syracuse Stage, 820 E. Genesee St. As director of educational outreach at Syracuse Stage, it is Lauren Unbekant’s job to make whatever play relevant to and resonate with the students. This is the third year she has worked with Nottingham art teacher Christina Ferlenda.
“The easiest way for me to see this is working is the amount of time these kids are willing to spend working on something,” Unbekant says. “They come into that room and they work. They either have a 45- or 80-minute block of time and some are now coming back during study halls and lunch. Tonight I’m going back there with kids who decided to stay late to work.”
What they have been working on now hangs from the lobby ceiling of Syracuse Stage. Before then, the students were laboring to finish the oversized advertising logos, the Nike swoosh, the Mercedes-Benz hood ornament and Under Armour’s linking “U” and “A” among them. Starting with cardboard and a glue gun, the students covered each logo, which the class refers to with the graffiti term “tag,” with plaster before decorating them.
“It was Christina’s idea to do 3-D art, which led us to graffiti tags and identity,” Unbekant explains. “The larger picture is, let’s look at something that has a bigger impact, and we thought about popular culture and creating an identity through a signature, pictures, anything that’s an element of their own identity.”
While one group of the art students worked on the tags, another decorated a large mural with that most basic of street cred signifiers: graffiti. Syracuse Stage hired freelance artist Nick West, 23, to work with the students. But he can impart some real-life lessons to the kids as well.
Hip-Shake, with Tim Joyce and Veanna Black, merged millennia.
“I grew up doing graffiti,” West says. “But I got in trouble for doing it when I was 17 and was on probation for three years and suspended from Fayetteville-Manlius High School.”
Part of West’s job now is to advocate for an art form that many consider one step away from the ’hood. “The idea is to teach them how to make a name for themselves,” he says, “and to use graffiti for marketing.”
In addition to the studio art component of Unbekant’s education initiative is the performance art aspect. On Thursday and Friday, March 13 and 14, the performance series titled Backstory! brought interactive, creative history lessons to Nottingham, 3100 E. Genesee St. One of the programs, Hip-Shake, by former Nottingham theater teacher and current Syracuse New Times contributor Len Fonte, features a modern hip-hop artist and an actor from Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, circa 1600.
Old school: Nottingham students (left, from left) Sarah Jackson, Jonathan Jackson and Imari Scott plaster the Nike swoosh.
“Hip-Shake is an interactive performance on the similarities between Shakespeare’s work and contemporary hip-hop,” Unbekant says. “It features Richard Burbage, the most famous actor connected to the Globe, who speaks in iambic pentameter, and Neffi, a slam poet/hip-hop artist, rapping in contemporary terms. They are both on stage at the same time, but separated by 400 years. At one point they say the same line and are transported, through theatrics, into the same space and they have to deal with one another.”
The entire project culminates with a visit by the students to see The Bomb-itty of Errors and enjoy their artwork as it was meant to be displayed. “We will have a reception for them here at Syracuse Stage on Thursday, March 20,” Unbekant notes. “We’ll thank them for their work, they’ll have refreshments, and then they’ll see the show with a general audience, not a student audience. I like them to have that experience. Our group keeps getting bigger. Now kids wander into the room and ask if they can participate next year, which is great. They think what they’re seeing is exciting.”