Clippings by Xian: Students learn the play’s the thing

I have a confession to make: Despite growing up in a family of theater people, I never “got” Shakespeare. In fact, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say I hated Shakespeare, I pretty much had to be forced to pick up one of his plays. I was also almost always unmoved by the professional productions I saw growing up; “The Tempest,” “Macbeth,” “Hamlet” and “Midsummer” all had cool sets and costumes, but I still couldn’t understand what anyone was saying.
The whole notion of Shakespeare soon became a thorn in my side. I was one of those kids that was always told I was a “good reader” — which, of course, stopped being cute around sixth grade — but I just couldn’t get around the dense, unfamiliar language.
What’s more, I didn’t see how the stories and characters were relevant to my life. Kings and queens and princes and princesses couldn’t have been farther from the reality of kids at my school, and the confusing words just obscured the texts further. Shakespeare’s plays weren’t just fairy tales; they were esoteric and inaccessible fairy tales.
Perhaps one could blame the disconnect, as a theater person I know recently did, on a “public school education,” where test scores and sports and real-world dramas always took precedence (apparently private school students are more proficient at developing their artistic and intellectual capacities). Perhaps the notion that people have to have lived a little to understand “great” “art” was also a little bit true. Regardless, no matter how the adults tried to get my classmates and I to appreciate Shakespeare’s world, their efforts fell flat. It really wasn’t that I would have rather watched TV or gone outside; I just always would rather have read something different.
My attitude toward Shakespeare, even after a yearlong stint as a directing major in college, didn’t change until last year when I took a job at the Town Hall Theater as a drama teacher with the education program’s “Shakespeare: It’s Elementary!” program. After 10 weeks of workshops with students at Mary Hogan, Leicester Central and Shoreham Elementary, more than 100 students performed “Hamlet,” an abbreviated script that kept Shakespeare’s poetry and complexity. What blew me away was that by the time the show went up, every single one of them knew what they were saying.
And, what do you know, so did I.
Last week, me and other team members at Town Hall Theater finished the second Shakespeare play put on by area elementary school students, a performance of “King Lear.” And for the second year in a row, I was struck by how much Shakespeare’s characters make sense as soon as you embody them. Plays, fundamentally, are meant to be acted out, not read; and poetry only recently became a solitary, silent activity, meant to be read over alone instead of spoken aloud. With Shakespeare, half the power is in the sound of the words.
With more than 100 kids performing, the individuals playing each character changed often and each person often had no more than half a dozen lines to memorize. Going over those lines with some again and again made me realize how much weight was put into each of them.
I also realized what makes Shakespeare stay relevant is that everything in his plays and his characters is so universal. We learned about betrayal, loyalty, trust, bravery, cunning and honesty when we were kids — the playground is where many of us learn things of epic proportions. Those themes don’t get any less epic as we get older, if we’re honest with ourselves, although we expect that adults will learn to “act them out” less, and keep them quiet and solitary more frequently. But why do we still value theater (or stories in general), if not to open ourselves to a more visceral and emotional way of interacting with ourselves and others?
In thinking of some way to close, I couldn’t help remembering a quote that Town Hall Theater director Doug Anderson gave me, in the first article I ever wrote for this publication:
“A kid who enjoys Shakespeare at a young age will grow into a person who’s open to all kinds of new experiences,” Anderson said. “So, as always, a study of good literature isn’t just about literature. It’s about opening up new ways of embracing the world.”
Now, if only I’d gotten there sooner.

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