During my grade school, middle school, and high school years I usually spent the months of October and November choosing my scene and monologue for the Pittsburgh Public Theater’s annual Shakespeare Scene and Monologue competition. My older brother set an example for me. He was an actor first, but I- the annoying younger sister that I was (am)- felt compelled to beat him at his own game.
My first time competing I prepared a scene from As You Like It with a male classmate of mine. He was not an actor. He also didn’t really care about doing well in the competition. He didn’t want anyone to know he was participating. He told me people would laugh at us if they knew we were reading and memorizing Shakespeare in our spare time.
At age eight I took my scene partner’s warning very seriously. Yes, I wanted to do well in the competition. Yes, I was having fun rehearsing. Yes, I was proud of the time and effort I was spending on this project. No, I did not want anyone my age to know these things.
Though I continued to prepare scenes and monologues each year, I kept my involvement in the competition a secret from my classmates at school and the girls on my gymnastics team. One year I played Petruchio in his scene with Kate from Taming of the Shrew. My scene partner was my childhood best friend, Anna, who lived in my neighborhood but did not attend my private school. I expertly avoided letting my classmates know I was a Shakespeare nerd. But then I won the competition and my name and picture was is the news paper. My school’s principal noticed the article and proceeded to publicly congratulate me on my success during morning meeting. I was mortified. While my teachers showered me with praise, my peers made fun of me. I told them my mom made me do it. I told them I thought it was stupid too.
It wasn’t until around my sophomore year in high school that I began to advertise my love of Shakespeare. This was around the time that I stopped hanging out with the girls who shopped at Abercrombie and only talked about the cute boys in our class in favor of spending more time with the theater kids.
Why is Shakespeare uncool? It is totally acceptable for an elementary school kid to tell their friends that they want to be a movie star when they grow up. However, expressing that they want to be a Shakespearean actor is enough to turn them into the victim of bullying. I had this negative experience at a liberal, private school. I can only imagine how much worse Shakespeare-loving kids enrolled in rural, public schools might have it.
Today, I have little trouble understanding Shakespeare’s texts. The language is generally pretty clear to me and when it isn’t I know what resourced will help me decode it. I attribute this ease partially to my exposure to Shakespeare at such a young age. Few kids are exposed to classical texts before high school and yet by junior high graduation I had an in depth understanding of five Shakespearean scenes and three monologues and I was familiar with the plays they were sourced from. Additionally, I had an ear for figuring out when “where” meant “where” and when “where” meant “why.”
To some, Shakespeare is like another language. If that is so, it makes sense that early exposure can greatly help later understanding. For this reason, I feel passionately about encouraging elementary school kids to view Shakespearean acting as cool. Shakespeare camp shouldn’t be made up of the lanky kids who would get trampled to death in soccer camp.
In this first ever Pittsburgh Public Theater Shakespeare Scene and Monologue Contest there were a total of 75 contestants. The year my scene took first place there were over 800 contestants. Last year there were over 1200. While this increase in numbers is good, I worry that there are simply just more and more kids secretly scanning iambic pentameter in their school’s bathroom stalls. Or worse: I worry that more and more kids are being forced by the apathetic teachers of their english class to memorize a minimum of ten lines by rote and rattle them off in front of the judges during a school field trip to the Pittsburgh Public Theater.
So how can we make Shakespeare accessible to and popular among younger age groups? In an article in The Independent, the author writes,”Start a child young enough, the RSC believes, and they will become Shakespeare lovers for life. Critics, however, say that it could equally put them off for ever.” In order to avoid intimidating kids by the difficulties of Shakespeare, lets utilize the clowns. Shakespeare included at least one clown in nearly all of his texts. These characters were included to appeal to the groundlings- the less educated and lower class. Perhaps elementary school kids can be compared to the groundlings. The clowns subverted authority and had potty mouths. Kids love subverting their parents and teachers. Kids love toilet humor. The clowns have ample opportunity for slapstick and physical humor. Kids laugh at slapstick and physical humor. Funny equals cool in the opinion of most elementary school students.
I agree with The Independent’s author that teaching the text in a classroom environment will yield little positive outcome for students younger than 14 or so. However inviting them to act out the text or watch professionals act out the texts will spark their interest.