April is a special month for the English-Speaking Union, as it is the time when we all celebrate Shakespeare's legacy through the ESU National Shakespeare Competition. The National Shakespeare Competition finals held over the weekend of April 22-24 in New York City were especially thrilling. It was the first time since the Covid pandemic began that the young contestants, their families, teachers, ESU volunteers, Board and staff came together in person to mark an important milestone – the Competition's 40th birthday.
ESU 2023 National Shakespeare Competition Contestants, Lincoln Center Plaza
The ESU National Shakespeare Competition is embraced by students, teachers and our members across the country because it embodies so well the ESU's mission to foster goodwill, inspire common bonds, promote civil discourse and unlock opportunities through the power of the English language.
As many of you know, the ESU National Shakespeare Competition provides a unique opportunity for young people to delve into Shakespeare's works and develop their public speaking and performance skills. Thanks to the hard work of our ESU Branch Shakespeare Coordinators, who engage with local schools and help to organize the local competitions, high school students guided by their teachers read, analyze and perform Shakespeare's monologues and sonnets in three qualifying stages – at the school, Branch and national levels.
Competing in the program is a rigorous academic and artistic pursuit. Reading, analyzing, and understanding Shakespeare's works exercise students' intellect, teach them discipline and focus, and deepen their appreciation for the power of the spoken word.
The Competition is a forum for artistic expression. It fosters a sense of individuality and creativity as students develop their own interpretation of the text.
Taking part in the ESU National Shakespeare Competition strengthens students' self-confidence, teaches them the skills of persuasion and prepares them for the ambiguities of life.
And last but not least, Shakespeare's timeless and universal themes of love and hate, pride and envy, betrayal and honor, fear and grief teach students the enduring values of integrity, responsibility and empathy.
To mark the Competition's 40th anniversary and celebrate the return to an in-person event, we devised a special 40th Anniversary National Shakespeare Competition weekend in New York City. Students, their families, teachers, Branch coordinators and guests explored our great city, took in some of the world-renowned sites, and participated in a variety of exciting activities including a brunch at the ESU headquarters, a performance workshop and a Broadway show. The weekend culminated in the final rounds of the Competition at Lincoln Center.
Each contestant brought their unique interpretation and style to the stage, showcasing their understanding of Shakespeare's language and themes. It was evident that the students had invested countless hours into perfecting their performances, and their hard work paid off in the quality of their presentations.
Elena Hollenbeak of the ESU Hawaii Branch won the grand prize - scholarship to the British American Drama Academy Midsummer Conservatory Program in London - with her thoughtful renditions of Sonnet 14 and Lady Macbeth from Macbeth. Her teacher, Lyn Ackerman at St. Andrews School – the Priory, received the $1,000 Teacher Recognition Award.
Casey Kerr of the ESU Central Florida Branch took second place with her performances of Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Sonnet 81. Nicole Beverly Chien of the ESU New York City Branch took third place for their rendition of Prince Hal in Henry IV and Sonnet 130.
Nearly 8,000 people from around the world voted for this year's ESU National Shakespeare Competition People's Choice Award. The recipient of the People's Choice Award first place prize was Pierre Beatrix Madlangbayan of the Kansas City Branch, student of Robyn Hilt at Garden City High School.
I mentioned the winners because we are all so proud of them. I also want to give thanks to the generous donors of this year's Competition because the success of the event is in great measure due to their invaluable support. Among them are the Competition's long-term generous contributors the Achelis & Bodman Foundation and the Jesse and Dorothy Hartman Foundation, as well as ESU Cleveland which underwrote the People's Choice Award First Place Prize; ESU Denver, sponsor of the participants' Broadway experience; and Competition gold sponsor ESU Central Florida.
I also want to thank all of our members and volunteers who have supported this program over the years, and who continue to do so today. Your dedication and commitment to the English-Speaking Union and its mission are truly inspiring, and we are grateful for your ongoing support.
Right after the Competition, I received letters from two teachers from Orlando, Florida, who had been Teachers Learning Abroad (TLab) scholars sponsored by the ESU Central Florida Branch and who had introduced the ESU National Shakespeare Competition into their public high school.
I encourage you to take a minute and read these letters. They are thoughtful and beautifully written. In addition to expressing their gratitude to the ESU for the life-changing experience in the ESU TLab program, Ms. Gail Chase and Ms. Jennifer Gautier touch on the larger point about the synergies that exist between the ESU's various educational programs and the opportunity these synergies present for organizational growth.
TLab scholarship recipients bringing the ESU National Shakespeare Competition to their schools, National Shakespeare competitors' parents joining the ESU as members, ESU Luard Morse scholars giving ESU Evelyn Wrench Speaker Lectures, Andrew Romay New Immigrant Center alumni becoming donors of the ESU, these are the kinds of interactions that will help to support the ESU's educational programs and strengthen the organization's fabric.
All ESU educational and cultural exchange programs offer extraordinary opportunities for our members to engage with people from different cultures and backgrounds. By interacting with program participants, we gain a deeper understanding of the importance of the ESU's mission and become more invested in supporting its goals. Similarly, the beneficiaries of the ESU programs have experienced first-hand the impact of the ESU's educational opportunities and understand the value they bring to society. By actively involving program beneficiaries in the ESU's activities, the organization will build a community that is passionate about and committed to its mission.
By welcoming program beneficiaries as valued members of the ESU community, the ESU can create a sense of loyalty and belonging and foster a culture of collaboration and partnership where individuals from all backgrounds feel empowered to contribute to the organization's goals. By recognizing their potential, the ESU can tap into a valuable resource for future growth and development. Many program participants are students or professionals who are yet to reach the pinnacle of their careers. By engaging with them early on, the ESU can cultivate a new generation of leaders who are committed to the organization's mission. They are essential to the ESU's future success.
These ideas are not new. They all came from our members during the conversations our consultant Rev. Renee LiaBraaten had with many of you over the summer of 2022 as part of her study on growth at the ESU. The study was presented at a special plenary session of the ESU 2022 Annual General Conference in Charleston, S.C. You all stressed the importance of building on the ESU's ability to bring people together through our shared love of the English language and on our aspiration to use its power to "make people's lives work better," as HRH The Princess Royal put it in her address at the Gala in her honor on October 3, 2022.
Dear friends, as we look to the future, it is clear that the success of our organization depends on the involvement and commitment of all of you – members, as well as volunteers and program participants, your families, and friends. I encourage you to participate actively in the ESU's activities and invite others who share our goals and values to join in. By sharing our message we can build a stronger, more vibrant organization that continues to successfully address the challenges of a rapidly changing world.
With best regards,