Breaking down the Bard
Shakespeare in School
No way, I thought. There’s no way you’re going to get a hundred elementary students to sit quietly and listen to Shakespeare. It’s hard enough to get me to listen to Shakespeare. But the Nevada Shakespeare Company’s Shakespeare in School program has proved me wrong.
With support from Nevada Humanities, Shakespeare in School kicked off its fourth season last month in the Washoe County Schools, to the delight of students of all ages. But make no mistake, this is not your typical Shakespearean study. Here, Shakespeare is presented in ways that relate to students’ experiences and engage their imaginations.
“No kid wants to sit and listen to monologues,” says Jennifer Rae Pennington, NSC’s education director. “But if they see their peers or teachers get up on stage, they really get into it. We wouldn’t do this if it weren’t fun.”
The Shakespeare in School crew consists of Pennington as emcee and actors Leslie Newcomb and Dave Beck. At the elementary school performances, Pennington’s daughter, Delana, and her friend, Soren Duplessis, both 7 years old and home-schooled, join in as well. Once students arrive, staring at the performers with that “entertain me” look on their faces, Pennington gets things started with some trivia.
“True or false?” she poses. “Shakespeare had eight brothers and sisters. Who thinks that’s true?” Hands fly into the air. “Who thinks it’s false?” More hands. “It’s true!” she announces. Several third graders punch their friends’ shoulders. “Haha,” they say, “I was ri-ight!”
I’m impressed—I would have said “false.”
As it turns out, Shakespeare also coined the terms “assassination” and “skim milk,” and it seems he had a son named Hamnet. Did you know that? I didn’t.
Students are given a brief background in live theater; for instance, they learn that men used to play women’s parts, that actors in Shakespeare’s day were vagabonds, and that during his time, it cost a penny to attend one of his plays. Volunteers are pulled out of the audience to do improvisational skits, like playing mechanical “parts” in a machine that Shakespeare could have used in his day or acting out what they think Shakespeare was doing during his “lost years.” Delana and Soren then wow everyone by reciting monologues and sonnets from memory.
“The kids’ show is different from the high-schoolers',” says Pennington. “High-school students love to be inappropriate and shout out crude things to be funny. They like to volunteer each other, and they cheer when their friends know the answers. Little kids love the sword fights, boys dressing as girls, and the slapstick stuff. But they all support each other, and it gives them confidence when they know the answers. Their minds are like sponges. They soak up everything.”
She says the response is overwhelmingly positive, and teachers often thank the crew for not being “afraid to look foolish.” And they’re absolutely not. “We’ll do whatever it takes to get the information across,” says Pennington. “We’ll modernize it, make it relevant to today, because that’s how they get it.”
NSC will hit several more elementary, middle and high schools between now and the end of April, and then they begin a tour of rural Nevada. So don’t be surprised if your kids start calling you “thee.” It’ll eventually pass, I’m sure.