Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

The Immeasurable Rewards of Directing Shakespeare in a Grade School

~by Keith Jones

David as Borachio in Much Ado About Nothing at RiverTree School, 2011

Although I have taught Shakespeare on the college level for many years, I had never considered directing a play until RiverTree School asked me to direct their end-of-year Shakespeare play.

I quickly learned that two of the most essential elements to possess in directing a Shakespeare play for grade school children are passion and patience.

Isaac as Conrade in Much Ado About Nothing at RiverTree School, 2011

Passion for Shakespeare is contagious.  If the children—and their teachers and parents—see the passion you have, they will not only be able but they will be eager to share that passion with you.  The popular impression that kids are reluctant to engage with Shakespeare is entirely false.  With the invaluable help of their teachers, these kids were as far from “creeping like snail unwillingly to school” as can be imagined!

Patience is essential because the process can be lengthy.  It takes time for the play to come together.  The children need time to study the story, to learn their lines and their blocking, and to learn to project their voices without shouting.  While they are learning those, they are also starting to understand more about the characters they are enacting and the way those characters relate to the others on stage.  But none of that comes in a day.

Margaret as Leonato in Much Ado About Nothing at RiverTree School, 2011

Answering students’ questions was a particularly delightful part of the process.  They had a lot of them, and even though the questions tended to start at a basic “What does this character mean in this speech?” level, they soon developed into something much more:  “Why is this character so mean in this speech?”

The kids and I had an enormously joyful time engaging with the material.  Directing grade school children in a Shakespeare play was unquestionably one of the most profound ways of engaging with Shakespeare that I have ever experienced.

Keith is a Professor in the Department of English at Northwestern College, and the author of Bardfilm: The  Shakespeare and Film Microblog. You can see Keith featured in this month’s Teacher to Teacher segment on our monthly BardNotes e-newsletter, as well as Margaret in our first ever Student to Student video, below.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FszVI2VA4DA]


  • Our daughter played Puck in “A Midsummers’ Night Dream” and Beatrice in “Much Ado About Nothing”, both directed by Dr. Jones. She was in 5th and 6th grades respectively, and these performances were the highpoint of her school year. It was amazing to watch the children (ages 5-13) rise up to the challenge, really get to know their characters and delight in presenting Shakespeare to audiences: the culmination of all their hard work.

    An interesting note is that children did not audition or try out for parts: ALL the children in the school were in the plays, and all parts were assigned by Dr. Jones and Mr. Nelson, the principal. The children read the plays first and then listed their top three choices. Some were assigned one of those choices, but many did not get even their third choice. However, there was a corporate commitment to the play and each child rose to their role with real passion. I think this is significant, because I am sure some of the students would never have tried out or thought they would enjoy being in a Shakespeare play. But EVERY child did well and enjoyed the experience immensely! Three Cheers for Dr. Jones and his young thespians!

  • I concur with julie steller’s comment. As the grandfather of three of the cast, I was privileged to be present at both productions (including the dress rehearsal of Much Ado) and was totally amazed to see grade schoolers transformed into a credible troupe of Shakespearean players. And what a merry band they were! Delighting in each others “look” as they appeared for the first time in costume; discretely prompting a cast member who momentarily went blank as they knew each others’ lines almost as well as their own. In addition to the “passionate and patient direction” and the collaborative spirit of the troupe, I applaud the costuming and set design for providing the atmosphere in which the acting troupe could thrive. What you saw on stage was not children (ages 5-13) but soldiers and lovers and rulers and “rude mechanics.” The illusion was, I think, a matter of scale. Since there were no adults on stage, you simply accepted the actors as adults. (Well, except for the fairies in Midsummer, beautifully played by the very youngest.) Kudos all around.
    –Papa Pantaloon

  • Keith, Thanks for sharing your insights about directing Shakespeare with youngsters. It think you are exactly right that patience and passion are key ingredients. Add having fun to the mix. One of the best weeks here at the Folger is watching students in grades 3-6 take the stage and share with their peers (and the adults in the audience) the fruits of their labors as they present Shakespeare’s work. It’s exciting to see so many of the students engage the text and make meaning of it while having great fun doing so. I echo Julie’s “Three cheers” comment.

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