Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

The Play's The Thing: The Problem is Choice

Every Spring for over 30 years students from across the region have gathered in our halls buzzing with excitement in anticipation of performing at our Secondary School and Children’s Festivals.

The Secondary School Festival featuring students in grades 7-12, is just around the corner in March. But close behind is the Emily Jordan Children’s Festival in May, featuring students in grades 3-6. Having performed once and attended once as a “groundling” at the Secondary School Festival in my youth, I can assure you that the memories built here last a lifetime! The glorious experience of performing at the Folger as a teenager felt like such an honor. I won’t even get into bragging about my troupe being recognized with the coveted Brian Cabe Award…but I digress.

The purpose of these festivals is to celebrate Shakespeare in an atmosphere that is fun, relaxed and supportive. For the students, performing the works of the Bard on the Folger’s Elizabethan Stage is exhilarating. But before the exhilaration comes preparation and often times frustration. As the teacher/director one has to battle with what play to choose, editing the script, getting the students to understand the text and of course staging the play. Not to mention expression, costumes, props, etcetera, etcetera!

 In particular the first task of choosing a play for performance with Elementary students can seem daunting. One may worry about content, but this can be easily solved with clever editing, which we at Folger Education fully support. After all, we may never really know exactly how Shakespeare’s plays were originally edited.

Some teachers choose to be democratic by sharing the plot synopsis of several plays (leaving out some of the more convoluted twists) and then letting students vote on which should be performed. Others may choose to select the play for their students based around certain parameters, such as class size, talent pool, content and yes, entertainment value. Veteran Children’s Festival participant and teacher of Shakespeare to 5th graders, Sharon Rosenblatt of Gesher Jewish Day School writes about the topic:

When I select a play, I try to use one that has as much of these elements [outrageous humor, black magic, blood and lots of great sword fights] as possible. I also consider, of course, the number of students with which I have to work. Midsummer is great for a large cast. Macbeth is wonderful; the ghosts, madness, blood and sword fights make it fun to perform. I have recently added Twelfth Night to my selection…the idea of boys being girls and girls being boys gives everyone a great laugh and a real sense of Shakespeare.

Ms. Rosenblatt also offers up three insights from working on Shakespeare with her students over the years.

1) The plays are very confusing at first, but the more you work with them the more they understand. The more they understand the better the performance becomes. 2) Encourage everyone to take a part- the bigger, the better. It never fails that those reluctant students who selected very minor roles always regret their decision. 3) Don’t panic or become discouraged. These kids will knock you out; just give them this opportunity and step back!!

With that great advice, let the festivals begin!