Saturday, August 9, 2014

Shakespeare in the Park

Children are made to learn bits of Shakespeare by heart, with the result that ever after they associate him with pedantic boredom. If they could meet him in the flesh, full of jollity and ale, they would be astonished...But if at school they had been inoculated against him, they will never be able to enjoy him. [...] Shakespeare did not write with a view to boring school-children; he wrote with a view to delighting his audiences...
  • Bertrand Russell, New Hopes for a Changing World (1951), p. 201.

Anyone who has watched David Tenant's 10th Doctor on Doctor Who will remember the episode when he meets William Shakespeare.  The Doctor uses "psychic paper" as an identification because it caused the viewer to see what he wants to see. If the Doctor is trying to get into an army warehouse his psychic ID will show him to be a five star general.  The ID doesn't work on William Shakespeare because you can't fool a genius.

William Shakespeare. The bane of all high school teenagers.  The thick verse. The strange words. The "I just can't understand it!"  "I hate Shakespeare."  "What the heck is iambic pentameter??" Well, you don't hate Shakespeare.  You just haven't been put in a position to appreciate it because no one exposed you to it correctly.  Shakespeare invented 1700 words and phrases that are now in our English language.  You'd be surprised to know that bedazzle, addiction, gloomy, swagger, and rant are his inventions.  He also coined phrases such as "break the ice," "in a pickle," and "neither rhyme nor reason."  (here's a cool page...A list of Shakespeare's words and phrases.  It's not an exhaustive list of course).  The greatest disservice to Shakespeare in high school (and forgive me if I irritate some school teachers here) is that Shakespeare is read, not seen.  I think every student should WATCH a production of a play and then read the text.  I wonder if this would have a better outcome and make the plays less frustrating.  **Here's a handy little tip. The more you read or listen to Shakespeare the easier it becomes to understand.  You might find yourself a little lost for the first 15-20 minutes but most people start to fall right into the language.  It's not so different from our language today. Fear of the verse is what seems to make people deaf.

Claudius and Hamlet
Shakespeare is the muse that inspired popular adaptations of his most famous works:  West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet), The Lion King (Hamlet), Ten Things I Hate About You (The Taming of the Shrew),  Scotland, PA (Macbeth), Ran (King Lear), She's the Man (Twelfth Night), O (Othello), Forbidden Planet (The Tempest), Warm Bodies (Romeo and Juliet), and My Own Private Idaho (Henry IV and Henry V).  Shakespeare's stories are universal and timeless and children should be taught to at the very least appreciate the Bard's contribution to the English language and theater.

Many cities have Shakespeare in the Park type productions. Often these productions are free to the public, or are staged for a nominal fee.  Many of these companies subsist on donations and grants (bring a couple of singles with you and drop a few dollars in the bucket when it's passed around). Many people don't how much time and effort goes into a production of a work of Shakespeare.  It's not easy.  I can barely memorize a stanza or two of a poem.  Can you imagine having to memorize (and act out) several thousand lines of Shakespearean English? But why go through all of that for a play?  Simply, these plays are that important to society...all society.

((**Note: Shakespeare is not Old English or even Middle English.  For all intents and purpose Old English is virtually unreadable for the average person and Middle English is the language in which Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales. Shakespeare is Modern English. You heard it right. MODERN English.))

 How to NOT Make Going to See a Shakespeare Play a Chore

Start young.  Take your children to see outdoor productions.  Remember this part...this is important...watching Shakespeare as a child is NOT NOT NOT about understanding every word.  It's about exposure.  Let your child hear the words, see the action, people watch the audience.  What kind of people go to Shakespearean plays?  All sorts of people.  People like you and me. The greatest Shakespeare scholars to the person who's never seen a play in his life.

Nope. Not asleep.  Relaxed and enjoying...the strangulation scene?
As much as the bachelor of English in me resists the idea, read a copy of the play using No Fear Shakespeare if you aren't well versed in Shakespeare and want to walk into the play knowing the plot  (No Fear Shakespeare is a reading aid where the play in its original words is presented on one side of the page and the current English translation on the other page). In no way to do I advocate the use of this sort of aid if you are currently in an English class or Shakespeare class.  Keep yourself honest and read or view the plays on your own. That is the point of studying Shakespeare. In the case of a first time viewing while at the same time trying to help a child understand a basic plot, go for it.

And example of a page from the No Fear Shakespeare collection
Make it a special day.  This year's production was Othello.  My daughter and I decided to pack a picnic lunch as we did when we saw The Philadelphia Philharmonic Orchestra play the score to Star Trek: Into Darkness live at the Mann Music Center (there was a lawn for picnics).  She helped make the sandwiches and decide on snacks.  We packed up a large blanket, parasols (it was an afternoon production), and our lunches.  We also packed her best friend and her best friend's mom (OK, so she didn't pack her...we invited them to come with us!).  A friend makes things better.  They can share an experience.

See if you can find a modern visual interpretation.  Many of the movie productions move out of the typical Elizabethan settings and clothing opting to reinterpret the plays using a modern backdrop. And it's very easy to do so.  Shakespeare's plays are timeless.  Ian McKellan's Richard III takes place in WWIIish Britain.  The story transfers easily.  The Kevin Kline version of A Midsummer Night's Dream takes place during the turn of the century as opposed to Ancient Thebes.  The Othello we went to see today was set in the backdrop of WWII.  Period costumes and music were used.  My kid is a history buff as well so she actually recognized the music.

The set for the 2014 production of Othello in Allentown, PA (8-9-14)

Watch the following video before you go see any Shakespeare play. No. I'm serious. Watch this. You will laugh yourself into stitches (that's from Twelfth Night...see what I did there??!)  It's kid friendly with the exception of the Punch and Judy scene. You might want to mute it (it's a wee bit racy).  Mute from 1 hour 15 minutes until 1 hour 17 minutes. 

How about Moonlighting's version of The Taming of the Shrew?  This one will also have you in stitches.  Quite a few modern references.

If you make it OK to like Shakespeare your child may grow to love him as I hope my child will.  Remember that you are the greatest influence in your child's life.  If you squish your eyes, wrinkle your nose, and say "I hate Shakespeare" chances are that's the exact same position your child will take. If you don't care for Shakespeare (or don't understand it) go on a journey together.  If you have to read the "No Fear Shakespeare" version of the play before you see the play do it. Do what you have to to enjoy it.  Maddie said to me after Othello, "you know when you see it it makes more sense."  So it does grasshopper. So it does.


Curtain call for Allentown's SitP's production of Othello
*Personal photographs taken by Karen Schlipp and posted with permission
*Allentown Shakespeare in the Park Facebook Page
*The Allentown Shakespeare in the Park Company: Fractured Atlas
*My apologies to my beloved Shakespeare professor Dr. L. Fletcher if I mucked up any information.

I had to throw this in...sorry.

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