My decision to produce The Hunchback of Notre Dame with my students was driven as much by the life lessons they could learn from the story as it was by the opportunity it would give them to grow as artists. I consider it my responsibility to develop my students into empathetic and thoughtful young people who understand the power they have and the impact they can have on others. Hunchback provided the perfect training ground to help them discover how they can use the forces of their own human nature to bring about either oppression and abuse or justice and compassion.
On day one of rehearsal, we began exploring the reasons why this story needed to be told in our community. Why us? Why now? This sparked a lot of conversation about my students’ daily experiences of bullying and social pressures that come from an age of constant social media intrusion. I discovered that themes like abuse of power, social exclusion, and prejudicial harassment were all too familiar to these teenagers; they experience them right in the palms of their hands multiple times a day. It wasn’t long before the cast started making clear connections between their own world and that of Paris in 1482.
“It wasn’t long before the cast started making clear connections between their own world and that of Paris in 1482.”
The students’ connections to the story became even more personal when we turned the discussion towards that which “must remain hidden,” in the words of Frollo. I asked the students to break into small groups to discuss aspects of themselves that they keep “hidden in a bell tower.” This simple but challenging exercise struck a chord for the cast. They suddenly connected, on a particularly intimate level, to the personal suppression and systematic oppression that each character in Hunchback battles with in their own way. When reflecting back on his experience, the actor playing Quasimodo explained, “The thing that clicked the most was finding something in myself that I find ‘monstrous’ and something I hide away. I was then able to create an authentic character by completely putting myself in his shoes.”
By the end of our first meeting, the cast had created their own mission statement that would drive the rest of our process: “We are doing this show because we want to become united in our acceptance of ourselves and those around us.” This statement stayed posted in our rehearsal and performance spaces until the end of the run, ultimately setting the tone for every rehearsal, meeting, and performance.
Floyd Central High School (Floyds Knobs, IN)
Perhaps one of the most difficult characters for a teenager to break into is Frollo. Guilt driven, sexually suppressed, abusive, and bigoted, Frollo is truly scary because he is so truly human. Yet the challenging work of unpacking Frollo, and ultimately empathizing with him in spite of his monstrous actions, might just be one of the most important tasks I have ever asked a student to take on. With the #MeToo Movement gaining momentum during our rehearsal process, the need to understand the Archdeacon took on particular relevance.
I was fortunate to have a very thoughtful student in the role of Frollo. Through lots of discussion, the actor who played Frollo and I discovered the eerily simple factors in Frollo’s life that enabled his hatred and self-justification: a genuine love for his brother, a sense of obligation to a church that saved him from poverty, and a position of ungoverned authority. Discovering how easy it was for Frollo to reach a point where he could use his power to manipulate and abuse Esmeralda was particularly scary to the actor who played him in light of the abuses the #MeToo Movement was exposing each day. Frightening as it was for him to see how easily a man can turn into a monster, I believe the experience of playing Frollo will serve him well as he journeys into adulthood. I see a great deal of self-awareness in this student and a desire to treat others with dignity, both strengthened by his time on stage in Frollo’s shoes.
While our program trains many students for successful careers in theatre and other industries, it is most important to me that the success they have as professional adults be part and parcel with a positive impact on their respective fields. If I develop skilled theatre practitioners who are successful only in so much as they get lots of work but leave the world the way they found it, then I have failed as an educator. Stories like The Hunchback of Notre Dame are essential to preparing my students to go into the world and make it better.
“Indeed, the world will be kinder and love will be blinder if more kids are exposed to thoughtful Theatre Education, especially through shows like The Hunchback of Notre Dame.“
In the midst of our run, we witnessed the horror of the Stoneman Douglas shooting coupled with the heroism of Thespians from that wounded school who were conscious of their power and began to wield it to bring about positive change in our nation. Cell phones and social media, the same weapons of division that my students recognized on day one as central to their own experiences of hatred, began to be used by their own peers to propel a movement of peace and justice. As we closed our show amid a week of intruder drills and Snapchat threats to our school district, I found a sense of hope knowing that my students had learned two things while producing Hunchback: that they have power and that the dreams of “someday” can come about today if they wield that strength for the good of themselves and others. Indeed, the world will be kinder and love will be blinder if more kids are exposed to thoughtful Theatre Education, especially through shows like The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Floyd Central High School (Floyds Knobs, IN)
Robbie Steiner is the Director of Theatre Arts at Floyd Central High School in southern Indiana. Under his direction, Floyd Central has been recognized as the “Best Theatre School in the Midwest” by Stage Directions Magazine and was honored with the Outstanding School Award by the Educational Theatre Association in 2017. He currently serves on the Teacher Advisory Council at Actors Theatre of Louisville. His work has been featured on the Main Stage at the International Thespian Festival, where Floyd Central’s production of Disney’s Newsies will be presented this summer. Robbie is a graduate of Indiana University.