Off the Page and Onto the Stage
An article about a grassroots Shakesperian Playmaker in urban Baton Rouge addressing teen suicide.

March 09th 2008 -
Off the Page,
Onto the Stage
Robin Cunningham Myers, LMT, CH, RRMT, SF

It’s Mardi Gras Saturday in Spanish Town, and there is a conversation under way in a private living room between a man with a deep resonate voice, and a very determined and excited woman. The woman is expressing the need for another thousand copies of a theatre playbill to be printed, because this will be good for the advertisers.

Advertisers. This piques my interest, so I actively eavesdrop while feigning sleeping beneath my cowboy hat – peering through the straw. As the conversation progresses, I cannot help but overhear more of the technical aspects of producing this playbill for the masses. Eventually, I can stand it no longer. I lift up my hat, and speak up. Asking about the purpose of the playbill, the woman, Patt Roberson, tells me of scenes from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet that will be performed at Baton Rouge Magnet High School, by the Southeast Shakespeare Company (SSC).

I am hooked. I unveil my last token of anonymity and boldly pronounce that I, in fact, am an advertiser, and that I, in fact, would LOVE to support their play.

Fast forward one month. My husband and I are gifted with two complementary tickets to attend the performance of Romeo and Juliet at the Baton Rouge Arts Council building. To my great delight, the man with the deep resonate voice, Rob Bigalke, is an actor/director/creator/and all-around-driving-force for what we soon realized was a play about something very critical to our community, Teen Suicide. We witness a compassionate, well-choreographed, strongly acted experience depicting a modern day expression of a classical piece. We were also unexpectedly honored to share the audience with Dr. Frank Campbell, the director for the Baton Rouge Crisis Intervention Center (BRCIC), who graciously facilitated the dialogue prior to the play.

We learned a great deal about this project, its focus and direction, and the passion of the actors, director, and hidden support that brought this project to fruition. We also learned a lot about suicide in our community.

Here are some staggering facts: Suicide is the ninth leading cause of death in the U.S., with rates among youth (ages 15-24) increasing more than 200% in the last fifty years. The Suicide rate is highest for the elderly (ages 85+) than for any other age group. Suicide is preventable. Most suicidal people give definite warning signals of their suicidal intentions. Four times more men than women are successful at committing suicide, but three times more women than men attempt it. There are no ethnic, economic, social or age boundaries for suicide, and firearms are the most common method among all groups.

How does a small, local theatre group, working from a mere $1400 grant from the Arts Council, put together such a timely, sensitive, community-focused project combining the most classical theatrical representation of teen suicide, with a facilitated discussion in a high school setting?

It might start with the company manager, or the director, or the chair of the board of the Southeast Shakespeare Company, or perhaps the artistic director, or, possibly the weapons master. What I learned on a cold March morning over coffee, was that yes, all of these contributed to this project, and that all of these positions belong to a single person, Rob Bigalke, founder of the Southeast Shakespeare Company. This is a small company of theatre proponents with huge hearts and great skill.

Rob arrived, rather unceremoniously, here in Baton Rouge in the fall of 2002. He moved from Atlanta, where he built his career in professional broadcasting, and writing, acting and teaching college. When the shock of transition wore off, he asked himself two things: “What have I always wanted to do?”, and, “What is the greatest void here in Baton Rouge?” His answers were clear and concise: “Shakespeare,” and “Classical Theatre,” respectively. At that moment, he founded the SSC with the intention of bringing Shakespeare out of the drab written realm, and into our contemporary vibrant, physical world. “You see, Shakespeare was not meant to be read, but to be experienced!”

It is with this focus that Rob fully embraced this project. Off the Page, Onto the Stage is a concept he learned about while attending a workshop offered by the Folgers Shakespeare Library, and the Annenberg Center for Public Policy of the University of Pennsylvania, regarding building collaborations around teen stress and suicide, and classical performance productions. Sparking Rob’s interest, he began canvassing Baton Rouge to locate agencies involved in suicide prevention. He hit pay dirt with Patty Rives, the outreach and education coordinator with BRCIC, where the value and direct need of a project targeted at local teens was quickly realized. Patty provides key support in areas such as creating an evaluation tool for the high school students, and being a part of the crew as a post performance facilitator.

Armed with support from BRCIC, and Baton Rouge Magnet High School, McKinley High School, and a small grant, Rob, the cast of three others, and the crew were able to create a series of artistically selected scenes portraying non-standard Romeo and Juliet as young lovers making painful choices about their lives. The performances are woven together seamlessly by Rob’s narration bridging events and periods, and the actors richly portray their rolls with passion, and contemporary expression. Performances were held at Baton Rouge Magnet High School, the Arts Council, and the Unitarian Church, with excellent facilitated dialogues at each, and there will be additional performances at McKinley High School next month.

This is a powerful example of a small group of people making a big difference in our community. Thank you Daymon Jackson (Romeo), Aimee Scheuermann (Juliet), Mel Dockery (Nurse to Juliet), and Rob Bigalke (Friar Lawrence/An Apothecary) for your powerful work. Thank you also to your employers, for without their flexibility and silent contribution to this work, it never would have happened.

Robin Cunningham Myers, LMT, CH, RRMT, SF provides Wholistic health services in the Baton Rouge area. She is owner of Wholistic Alternatives, and a supporter of grassroots community support and awareness.

Contact Member:
Empowering Alchemy LLC
Taos, New Mexico
Taos, NM 87571
United States
Rob Bigalke