Kirsten Kelly ’95 felt an immediate connection to The Wednesday Wars the first time she read it. “I really have such a love of Shakespeare,” she explained. “I grew up very afraid of it; I didn’t find a good way into it until my late 20s.”
The main character in Calvin professor Gary Schmidt’s Newbery Honor Award-winning book, Holling Hoodhood, also develops a fondness for Shakespeare, but at a much younger age (seventh grade) and under different circumstances (duress). Young Holling is forced to read Shakespeare every Wednesday afternoon while the rest of his classmates attend Jewish Hebrew school or Catholic catechism class; Holling is a Presbyterian.
“The way Shakespeare opened this young seventh-grader up to a love of words—that story line set against the backdrop of the years 1967 to 1968 that was such a tumultuous time in this country, made me think, ‘I could see this as a play,’” Kelly said.
Kelly, a freelance director and producer living in New York, first returned to Calvin in 2009 to lead an interim class, which performed The Government Inspector as its final project. Her idea with The Wednesday Wars was to have students participate in every facet of the production.
“She approached me with the idea,” said Calvin communication arts and sciences professor David Leugs. “She was looking for an opportunity to direct this, and because we had a great experience with her here last time and the connection to Calvin and Gary and the book, she immediately got my attention.”
With Schmidt’s blessing, Kelly enlisted the help of Brian Farish ’04 to co-author the script. “I think it’s very cool to see your book acted on stage,” said Schmidt, who explained that The Wednesday Wars is semi-autobiographical: Schmidt was that seventh-grader who read Shakespeare while the rest of his class attended religious classes.
“I read for the story; what I learned is that what Shakespeare wants is to give us a great story,” he said. “It helped me get through seventh grade—the most bizarre year of my life. It gave me stories to help me understand the world.”
A good story is what Kelly hoped to communicate in the stage version, as well. “So much happens in this book, but so much of it can’t be on stage,” she said. “It’s so beautiful how Shakespeare starts to correlate with things in this seventh-grade boy’s life; that’s what I want to bring to the stage.”
Kelly did that with the help of numerous Calvin students who assisted in the workshop production of the piece, everything from dramaturgical research to technical production to acting—all during the month of January.
The show was performed in late January and early February for school groups and the general public; many of the performances sold out.
The show’s appeal did not surprise Kelly: “Everyone I have talked to about this project loves the book so much.”