By Diana Darwin and Nancy Howard
Imagine children, not much taller than yardsticks, clearly and passionately performing lines from Romeo and Juliet. Simply dressed in blue T-shirts for the Montagues, red T-shirts for the Capulets, and yellow tees for the Prince and his family (a few wore mustaches and many carried swords), they projected proudly as they enacted an abbreviated version of this play. They were energized—and energizing—nine-year-old children from a public charter school here in DC. At the end of the day, we asked their teacher how the students came to own the language. He replied, “Practice, lots of it.”
This is the kind of magic behind the Emily Jordan Folger Shakespeare Children’s Festival: elementary students speaking Shakespeare’s language as if it were written for them (and we believe it was!).
Children understand and enjoy Shakespeare when given the chance to perform it! The comedic spirit of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was alive and well presented by a cast of students who were having so much fun the audience couldn’t resist. Young Pyramus understood the humor in taking such a long time to die…and the audience responded with happy laughter and applause. The community of learners in the Folger Theatre inspired and supported each other, demonstrating throughout the week the value of the arts and humanities.
It seems to me that perhaps the most important lessons learned from the arduous preparation made by all these students is their ability to do things they thought were hard. Their work learning lines and presenting characters demands that children stretch beyond the familiar and risk trying new things. We believe that the growth that we witness in these young people is only a glimpse of an unlimited future ahead.
Nancy Howard and Diana Darwin both taught Eighth Grade Language Arts and produced/directed theatrical productions at George Washington Middle School in Alexandria, Virginia. After retiring in 2006, they became docents at Folger Shakespeare Library.