To see, or not to see, that is the question…

October 18, 2012

When I taught middle school, every three years (part of a three-year curriculum cycle) we taught Shakespeare.  This ended with a Shakespeare festival, in which every student performed some role (big or small) in one of three plays. I discovered that I had no talent or interest in directing a play, but that I adored helping students enjoy Shakespeare.  The students who graduated from our school (which ends in 8th grade) went on to enjoy Shakespeare in high school, having learned from us the joy of it.

My son is in fifth grade.  Last spring, a local theater company put on a production of “The Comedy of Errors.”  I decided he was ready for his first Shakespeare, and it would be a good one, being a somewhat slapstick comedy overall.  Before we went, I prepped him a bit, letting him know that he didn’t need to understand every individual word, and that as long as he got the gist of it, that was fine.

He loved it.  He guffawed, he hooted, he spent the intermission talking about the characters.  And he said afterwards that he felt he understood most of the language even though it was “old-fashioned.”

This fall a friend’s Shakespeare company in New York was putting on a new play that borrowed from and paid homage to Shakespeare.  I asked if the play was appropriate for an 11 year old; they said certainly.  So off we went.

Again, our son loved it.  He laughed, he talked at great length afterwards about the characters and the plot, he picked up on the meaning of the characters’ names by reading the program beforehand.  (He’d make a great “groundling” — he really loves to interact with the play, not only laughing, but responding loudly or repeating lines.  We’ve had to quash those instincts, as we are not actual Shakespearean theater-goers and the other audience members wouldn’t appreciate a loud child…)

Great success on both counts.  And yet, at both of these performances, our son was the only child in the audience.  The Shakespeare production was a matinee, and later on during the play’s run the company itself marketed the play to school groups and families, but that hadn’t caught on yet when we went.  And at the play in New York, there were no other kids at all.  My husband commented that maybe it was because it was late, but if you actually lived in New York, it wouldn’t be that strange to see a play that ended at 10:30 with your family.  I’ve seen younger children out later than that in Times Square.

So why no children in the audience?  Maybe it’s because there are still a lot of adults out there who had bad Shakespeare experiences in high school or college, the joy beaten out of the play with a focus on how difficult the language is rather than on how universal the themes within are.  Or maybe adults think that kids can’t possibly “get” Shakespeare, that it’s too difficult.

But really, assuming you’re taking kids to see something accessible (the comedies are perfect; teens can get the history plays pretty well if you talk about the power struggles within first; and of course teens can totally get the romances), Shakespeare works.  There’s a reason he has been held up all these years as such an amazing playwright.  And if you just let children get the gist of it and enjoy it, they will.

So take a child to a play. Let children discover the thrill of live theater. And don’t fret if it’s Shakespeare.  They’ll probably love it.

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