The Shakespeare Club kids didn’t know what was coming. Banquo had just been murdered, and now Macbeth and Lady Macbeth were entertaining the nobles at a feast, and we turned a page and the kids saw the words ENTER BANQUO’S GHOST.
“No way!!!!” broke out from almost every member of the reading circle in unison.
If William Shakespeare could have seen their reaction, it would have made his day.
I love our Shakespeare Club. Sarah and others have asked me several times to elaborate on the format a little, so here you go. We have a group of about a dozen kids ages 10-14, more or less. My Beanie is the youngest member, at on-the-brink-of-nine. This is our third year, our third play. The group has grown both in age range and number since our beginning (though we dearly miss a few members whose schedules precluded their participation this year).
Unlike Alice‘s group, which was our inspiration, we haven’t yet performed a whole play. The kids think this might be the year—they are really, really enjoying Macbeth, and nearly every turn of the page has them bubbling over with questions and ideas about how to stage it. How will we do the ghost? How will we make the spirits appear out of the witches’ cauldron?
We started as a reading group—I had in mind to invite a few of Jane’s friends to join us for a read-through of Midsummer Night’s Dream. We met every other week and slowly read the play aloud, pausing often to work out the meaning of the complicated language. I used the wonderful book One Day in Elizabethan England as an ice-breaker—what a fabulous book that is, full of rich, comical, grandiloquent, irresistible language.
“…you eat rather pinglingly, having only: a sip of soup, a snip of snipe, a smidgeon of stag, a munch of mutton, a bite of boar, a pinch of pheasant, and a little lark.”
What a feast of phrases to whet one’s appetite for Shakespeare!
By the time we finished reading Midsummer Night’s Dream that first year (it took us from September to Christmas, meeting twice a month), the kids were clamoring to perform scenes for their parents. And so during the next several months, while our main focus shifted to the Journey North Mystery Class, we squeezed in rehearsals of a few key scenes from the play. One of the families hosted the performance early that summer. The kids made the costumes and backdrops themselves, very simply. They were charming. We invited friends and family to the show and it was a grand success.
Last year we repeated the experience with Taming of the Shrew. More kids this time, and longer scenes. Lots of fiery language and comedy flying around the room. The arrival of several babies in our group of families changed up our winter and spring schedules quite a bit, so instead of an early-summer performance, we took a long break and then had a one-week “Shakespeare camp” in August. Each morning, we warmed up with some rousing theater games—so much fun—and then rehearsed our scenes. At the end of the week, we scheduled a performance. I think we squeezed in a dress rehearsal about a week after the camp, before the big night. Once again, the kids made their own costumes, and our set was minimal. We celebrated the fine performance with a potluck feast—each dish inspired by a line or character in the play, as demonstrated so magically in Alice Gunther’s book, Haystack Full of Needles.
And this year: Macbeth. The boys were rather adamant about wanting a tragedy this time. Give us blood and guts! All right, says I, I’ll see your blood and guts and raise you ghosts and witches. Heh.
Once again, we’ve followed the same basic format: from September through January, we’ve met roughly twice a month for our group read-through. My role as leader of the club is to help the kids unpack the language. We stop as often as we need to, every speech, or every few lines even, to “translate” the text, as it were. We talk about the themes and motifs. The kids have animated discussions about the characters’ motivations. This play has afforded us many excellent examples of dramatic irony. I think my favorite part of the club is listening to the kids discuss the “what and why.” Today, when they were all so bowled over by the arrival of Banquo’s ghost, it was all I could do not to whoop. It is so exciting for me to see them get so excited!
They seem very eager, this year, to stage the whole play. We’ll finish our read-through next time we meet, and then we’ll start rehearsing, I guess. Truth be told, I am not much of a director. I started out as a theater major in college, but I was more the onstage type. But I can help the kids figure out what the heck they’re saying, and why. I can’t wait to see their reaction to Birnam Wood’s approach on Dunsinane Hill, next time we meet.