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Shakespeare and Creative Dramatics at Home

By Howard and Susan Richman
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #42, 2001.

The Shakespeare Sleepover Society and other creative ways home-schoolers are pursuing the dramatic arts.

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Howard and Susan Richman

It's late. Very late. But the happy noises are still wafting over to my bedroom where I'm trying to sleep.

"Hey, I know, we could have the soap opera version of Romeo and Juliet next . . . and then the pet version . . . and then the 90's version!"

"Is the camera working? Here, you do the sound for this scene."

"Anyone find some dress-up clothes that would work for the courtship version of Romeo and Juliet? How about some bandannas and overalls and we'd make them be farm kids?"

The next morning I get to see the handiwork of the night's labors. It's the Sleepover Shakespeare Society's latest spoof of a play the group has discussed - seven new ways of looking at the famous balcony scene, ad-libbed by the cast of a half-dozen homeschooled girls. I've rarely laughed so hard, especially at the feminist version, where an outraged Juliet tosses a proffered flower back at a rather wimpy Romeo, who tries to assure her that he actually likes girls who are dominant.

The Sleepover Shakespeare Society was my daughter Molly's idea, and now that Molly's off at college, Hannah, heading into ninth grade, has taken over leadership. It's been a surprise path into the delightful world of creative dramatics for them all - a surprise partly because making their own spoofs of plays wasn't in the original game plan. The idea was to discuss a chosen play for about 45 minutes together after a potluck meal, then watch a movie version of the play, followed by maybe more discussion, followed eventually by heading to bed. The discussions, totally led by the students, were terrific, but some months we couldn't find a good movie to watch (and do not watch Ten Things I Hate About You as a substitute for The Taming of the Shrew - unless you want to know a few more reasons not to send your kids to public high school!). We did, however, have a video camera on hand, and the idea was born. There was something really charming about these teenage girls all diving into our old dress-up clothes trunk, creating on-the-spot wild outfits for Macbeth, King Lear, or Hamlet (well, actually that one was called Omelet). There were times when I'd think this was all just silliness - until I'd listen more closely to the talk surrounding their decision making. Then I'd realize how much the girls really had to understand about these plays in order to create these impromptu spoofs. They'd debate back and forth about what scenes would be most important to include, how to do each character, what they might say and why, and more. Plus they were feeling that wonderful sense of camaraderie that all involved in any play production feel! Many friendships were formed during those late night giggling drama times.

The girls also enjoyed reading through selected scenes together, and playing the lively game from Aristoplay called The Play's the Thing: A Dramatic Introduction to Shakespeare, where the kids answered questions about plays, performed very short dialogues, and worried about escaping from the Plague or challenging other actors to a duel. Lots of laughter during this game!

The group also moved into the real world of serious Shakespeare also. They attended live performances in our region - sometimes free productions given on college campuses, sometimes student matinees where we'd get the inexpensive school-group price. Many of them took part in the annual Shakespeare Monologue and Scene Competition offered by the Pittsburgh Public Theater, even taking advantage of free professional coaching offered by the staff at the theater. (I've heard of other cities doing similar monologue contests. A homeschool group outside of Philadelphia took part for years in a Shakespeare competition that eventually led one of their students to compete in New York City against winners from other regions.) When performing their own scenes on the main stage of the Pittsburgh Public Theater, the girls also got to see many other student performances. Often these would spark interest in reading new plays, just to find out what that one very funny or very touching scene was all about. Shakespeare was becoming more and more accessible through all of these many opportunities for active learning and doing.

At this year's Shakespeare Competition, the winner of the younger age group turned out to be a homeschooled boy - and his older brother, who had been homeschooled during his earlier years, was back in the finals also. Talking to their mother afterwards, I found that homeschooling had enabled her older son to really take part actively in community theater for many years. Because he was homeschooled, his schedule was so much more flexible (read this to mean he could sleep in after a late-night rehearsal on a 'school night') that he had the time to work on major roles when quite young. He was now planning on heading to college and majoring in drama. The younger brother seems to be following suit, and the whole family is really enjoying being part of the larger community through these drama activities. Shakespeare can lead you all sorts of places.

Other homeschool groups I know have actually put on major Shakespeare productions, sometimes over the summer when everyone had more free time, sometimes working as a co-op group during the whole school year.

You never know where creative dramatics may lead your homeschool group. A group in New York state is now in their fourth summer of Shakespeare, and all the kids and parents involved have really gained from the experience of really learning about these plays by doing them. They started out just reading through A Midsummer Night's Dream together very hesitantly, then gradually gained confidence, understanding, and insight into what they were doing, until they were ready to stage an actual public performance. One mother told me afterwards that when the group had the chance to see a professional production of this first play, "We all went, even the six-year-olds, and all of us were riveted - none of us, I think, had ever appreciated a play, certainly not a play by Shakespeare, as much as we did after having acted in it ourselves."

So jump into the Bard's work, even in very informal ways that may seem just like . . . well, play. After all, the other word for drama is "play."

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