For 32 Southern Arizona high school students, it's all about William Shakespeare as they compete in a monologue competition on Saturday, March 3, for a chance to compete nationally in New York City—and perhaps study in London. Retired teacher Jerry Helm has been involved in the competition for more than 25 years, first taking his Pueblo High School students to it, and later heading the local competition when he retired. The competition, which is open to the public, runs from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the UA's Marroney Theatre. For more information, call 975-2437, or go to www.esuus.org.
How long has this competition been going on in Tucson?
This is our 27th year, but I think it's been going on nationwide about 30 years.
Who organizes this nationwide?
It's sponsored by a group called the English-Speaking Union, which is headquartered in England and has a national headquarters in New York City. It's not a political organization or something about English-only. It's a group that started after World War I with the goal of trying to figure out a way to avoid future wars. The idea is that better communication would help, and the group is dedicated to the clear usage of English language. They feel Shakespeare is a good way to improve those skills. They've been sponsoring this in the U.S. and Canada, and they pay the expenses of the winners all around the country to fly to New York in April for the national competition.
How did you get involved?
Well, I'm a retired teacher. I taught English, French and swimming at Pueblo High School. I heard about it, so I had kids at Pueblo competing in it. When I retired in 1993, the people organizing it then came to me and asked me to run the (local) competition, so I've been helping with it now since 1993.
What is the average number of students who compete?
The average is around 30 from high schools from across Southern Arizona—from Sierra Vista and Sahuarita, Douglas and Nogales, but most of them are from Tucson.
How do you get the word out?
We send out information to all the high schools in Southern Arizona every year informing them what this is all about, (followed by) emails and phone calls to individual teachers. It's been pretty successful. The teachers nowadays are overworked, and a lot of them who used to participate are finding they can't because they don't have the time. But when we lose a school, we pick up another one every year.
How many schools and students this year?
This year, we have 30 or 32 kids, and I think we have 19 or 20 schools involved. They have their in-school competitions—where kids memorize 20 lines from a Shakespeare play, and they do it in school—and we try to attend in-school competitions to lend support.
Do you think overall interest in Shakespeare is growing?
I think it is really growing. The level of participation and the quality of participants seems to get better every year. Kids when I was in high school would have laughed at a thing like this, but these kids are just amazing. They really get into it and do wonderful jobs with their interpretations. I think it is growing in the schools that try to nurture it, anyway. You have to have a teacher that's involved and believes.
What is it about Shakespeare that still connects with students?
Shakespeare is so universal, and (he) dealt with basic human emotions and human problems. We suggest monologues to (students), but they are free to choose any 20 lines they like. This speaks to people, and there's everything—comedy, tragedy and lust and fear, death and life.
Has Tucson ever had a student go on to London?
No, but we've had several in the top 10, and we had one student one year who was written up in the New Yorker—a young man from Tucson High School, a Mexican-American kid who did a cholo version of one of the monologues. ... The kids can be quite original and can come up with some unusual readings. The New Yorker reporter attended it and thought he was outstanding, but he came in second or third that year. ... They kind of like us in New York. We just haven't broken through with that ultimate winner yet.