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Sunday, October 11, 2009

How Old Is Too Young for Shakespeare?

As quoted by a reporter in a NJ Camden County newspaper article, May 6, 2008:

"'I had to practice hard. I really winged it my first day, but I learned how to look at words before reading them', said [Nick Bottom] whose role called for frequent interplay with audience members."

One reason for the frequent interplay was because Shakespeare "himself" had directed this player to do exactly that. In fact, Shakespeare himself (or some guy who looked, sounded, and dressed an awful lot like him) had actually stopped the action to give this actor some direction--in front of the audience! But, knowing that the performance of "Rehearsing A Midsommer Nights Dreame With Shakespeare" had been billed as just that--a rehearsal, the audience members weren't too put off by the rudeness of this Impostor.

Another of the reasons Bottom's "...role called for frequent interplay..."?

The rest of the students in the school, grades 1-4, were a big part of the process. They were watching how well a 5th grader had learned how to "...look at words...", and they already knew some of what he was going to say. Having worked on some of those words, and many more, as part of a month long program involving words and concepts often billed as "too hard" or "too advanced for their age group", they were familiar with Bottom's "Raging Rocks" "bad acting" tirade in Act I of A Midsummer Night's Dream. So familiar, in fact, that when the guy dressed as "Shakespeare" once again stopped the action to ask his Apprentice Players if they remembered the speech, they showed him how well They had learned "how to look at words"--and how. On the count of three, the entire remainder of the school, grades 1-4, in perfect unison, and without a hitch, recounted, from memory, a speech they were never asked to memorize. But they'd heard it enough, spoken it out loud, worked on it and other speeches in pieces and bits, while depending on the cooperation of their fellow students to support their efforts when they were asked.

The teachers and parents in attendance were not a little amazed at this response from an entire student body. But Shakespeare? ...Somehow he knew the chance he was taking wasn't all that risky. He and His Players had come to a mutual respect and interest when it came to each others Knowledge, Abilities, and Talents.

So, I'm asking: How old is too young to learn something about Shakespeare? JM


  1. Anybody who knows me, knows my answer to this one. My kids have heard Shakespeare since birth. Kids memorize, kids repeat. So what's the difference, in a little kid brain, between Baa Baa Black Sheep and, say, Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? The answer is "Not much" and I've got the audio of my 2yr old doing Sonnet 18 to prove it :).

    I would love for one of my kids to come home and say that the school play will be Shakespeare. I'd fall over myself. Until then I have to content myself with reading them the stories, making paper dolls, pointing out Shakespeare references as I see them, and so on.

    My kids may never grow up to be actors, and that's ok. That's not the goal. My goal has always been for them to grow up with zero fear of Shakespeare. All that basic stuff? Plot, character, memorization? They can start that before elementary school. Once that's out of the way they can start to get at the deeper stuff.

  2. Hear, hear, Duane!
    Although it's only semantics--and you know that it's so unlike me to quibble... :):):):)

    What's the difference between "Baa Baa" and "Shall I compare thee"?--a lot--of worthwhile content, imagery, and rhythmic investigation. But you know this already.

    One of the things I continue to work toward will hopefully make it possible more often for the answer to your question about the school play to be the one you'd like to hear.

    But I guess, ironically speaking, the baby steps have to come first--from the adults. I've got a couple of abbreviated things in the works. But it's most of the time slow going. Especially with the way things are at present; employing me to teach Shakespeare to grade school kids isn't too high on the educational list of priority spending.
    But we can keep up the good fight. :) Thanks for pointing up the issue on shakespearegeek. JM

  3. SO interesting not to mention memorising but to keep it active through repetition, hearing it speaking it and depending on co-operation of their classmates. Does the idea of memorising then terrify so much? or is the idea to allow them to memorise by absorption and then when the memorising is a 'fait accompli' point out that it is memorised?

    whoops i see this thread is 6 months old. but that's the beauty of the web. Keep up the good work!

    William S.

  4. Hi William,
    No matter the time between thoughts--it's the thoughts that count. Sorry to have not responded sooner, but I've been conditioned to not expect very many comments...as you can see.

    The reason I don't require memorizing in these cases, is because so little time in such instances is given to actual "rehearsal". It's amazing how little the powers that be know about the process and exigencies of putting on a "presentation" about or around what the students have learned, yet they always seem to want one at the end--no matter the length of time or lack of designated time to actually give the students a chance to associate words with actions and places. This isn't their fault; although I ask continually for more "extra" time, the financial burden of having the space open seems to preclude the possibility, even though I'm willing to donate my time to the effort. They have to pay a school rep to be there during extra curricular activities. But whenever one mentions "drama" the "let's put on a play!" chanting begins :)
    Upcoming in May, I have only 12 days to teach 1-6 grades something about theatre and drama, organize and rehearse scenes with them, and "present" something at the end--and all of this ONLY during regularly scheduled class times. The one thing I don't want is for the students, many of them new to ANY dramatic process or demands, to have to worry about one more thing in so little time. Being an actor, I know the pressure "getting it right" can bear on my performance if I haven't had the time to assimilate the material. The reason I'm there in the person of Shakespeare "rehearsing" with his actors, is to circumvent the guilt or feeling of failure any "mistakes" might bring. In my view, their initial experience should be as positive as possible.
    There's a discussion on ShakespeareGeek's site about memorization that goes into some detail:

    Thanks so much for stopping by, and for your kind words of encouragement. They're much appreciated. (and for the spurr towards better surveillance your dropping by has provided for me) :) JM

  5. yeppers positivity is the key. i love shakespeare and don't want to be the cause of anyone hating him.

    i tell my 1st and 2nd year acting students 16-20 yrs that the work they do is for themselves not for a grade only.

    keep on keeping on bro.