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Shakespeare Camp

By Joyce McPherson
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #80, 2008.

Joyce tells how to start and run your very own Shakespeare camp.
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Joyce McPherson

Shakespeare Camp:  26 Students
Shakespeare Camp: 26 Students, 5 days and one timeless play.

What I Learned from Shakespeare Camp
by Andrew McPherson

Shakespeare Camp has given me the opportunity to learn many things. I can cry, I can stab myself to death, and I can dance several medieval dances. These are very important talents. I've performed in almost all of my mother's Shakespeare plays. Most recently I played Thisby, the rustic actor who plays a woman in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." ("Nay, faith, let me not play a woman; I have a beard coming.")

The only real problem I have with the stage is that I have a terrible speech impediment. Before I began acting, I was a shy ten-year-old who couldn't be understood by many people. My ss used to sound like th, and my r was w. I spent months before my first play trying to pronounce everything perfectly and slowly, and also loudly, since we didn't have microphones. And guess what? My speech improved. The night of our performance I even got laughter and applause.

My acting skills have improved since then. I've played several comedy parts and I've learned many things. Here are some examples: "Never play old men, or your hair will be white for a couple of days after the play" and "Beware of directors bearing dresses."

I've gotten over my extreme stage-fright, and now I know dozens of homeschoolers. After acting for two years, I started studying the noble sport of fencing so that I could someday fence on the stage. This in turn led to becoming the apprentice teacher for my class.

I also had an idea to make a newspaper called The Globe for the week of camp. I asked the troupe to contribute articles, and I conducted interviews with the actors. I also made cartoons and puzzles. We even had a sports section with make-believe teams, such as the Belmont Bombers and the Venice Champions. (Read Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice for more details.) Each day of camp a new edition came out. I found that I enjoyed putting together a newspaper. After camp, I joined a writing club started by another cast member.

I use my acting, public speaking, and many other things I've learned from these plays almost every day. I interact with so many people, and I can now speak much more clearly. I have started new hobbies like fencing and writing. I'm already practicing my lines for the next play, Much Ado About Nothing, with all my Shakespeare buddies. I'm really looking forward to another great week of seeing all the funny mistakes made by the characters of Shakespeare's plays. I wonder what my sister will dream up for costumes this year?

I am becoming a "senior" home-school mom. With my second child applying for college, I am feeling the need to share some of the things I have learned along the way. If I could share just one idea that has the potential to awaken a child to beauty in literature or just one idea that would prepare a student for college studies, I would say, "Do more Shakespeare!"

I know this sounds odd coming from someone who would definitely put the Bible first as the source of literature. Yet for most of us, the Bible is very accessible, and its impact on the English language and the development of our children is assured. On the other hand, Shakespeare is losing ground in almost every stage of secular curriculum, and this generation is losing a piece of their heritage.

Bringing Shakespeare into your homeschool is not as difficult as it sounds. For young children there are excellent synopses like Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare and Nesbit's Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare. However, if you stop there you will miss the most important part.

Meant to Be Read Aloud

When we began reading Shakespeare aloud in our homeschool, we realized it was meant to be read aloud. From there it was a natural step to gather some friends and actually put on a play ourselves.

Sewing to make costumes
Many of our students learned to sew because they wanted to make their own costumes.

I would like to share with you how we made this happen and how we were able to do it in a way that was realistic for some very busy homeschoolers.

Shakespeare in a Week

We decided to produce our play in a week during the summer. In preparation, we celebrated Shakespeare's birthday on April 23rd and combined the party with simple auditions for the various roles. Each person was asked to memorize about ten to twenty lines, and the team of coaches judged the auditions on skills in memorization, acting and projecting. (Like Shakespeare, we did not have access to microphones.) We emailed the assigned roles that evening, and from there the students had four months to learn their lines and to prepare their costumes and props at home.

A Typical Camp

Over the years we developed a pattern for how we spent our time. Here is how a typical camp runs:

The week of camp we meet from 9 AM to 2 PM each day. The students wear their costumes from the first day, so that in a sense it is like living with twenty-six Shakespearean characters for a week. We call it "living the play from the inside."

Classic swordfight At the beginning of camp I like to talk with the students about art and what it means to create something beautiful to honor God. When we perform for our audience, we are obeying the command to love our neighbor. After our short talk we open with prayer and the day begins!

Learning to Project

Each day we begin camp with warm-up exercises. Most of our new students need to learn to project. We practice projecting our voices by going around a circle and having each student say his first line. We say other silly things, too, to improve enunciation and to warm up our vocal cords like, "Sooth, I know not why I am so sad." Sometimes it helps to have new actors sit in the audience and hear how soft our voices are on stage.

Learning to Act

For the entire first day and the morning of the second day, we divide into smaller groups to rehearse and plan how we will interact on stage. This is the place where budding actors have the chance to hone their skills. Coaches challenge them to think of ways to communicate their character through voice and movement. The students sharpen one another as they rehearse. They also enjoy developing the personality of their characters through the use of body language and intonation.

Putting It All Together

Finally, on the afternoon of the second day, we have our first run-through. I warn the actors that there will be lots of mistakes. I instruct them to just keep on going. (This is a good rule for life, too.) At least one coach stays backstage to cue the players and to keep the play moving. The coaches and students who are not needed form the audience. They take notes of ideas and suggestions to improve our production. For the younger actors this is often their first opportunity to understand the play as a whole. They understand their own roles better after watching the entire play.

Andrew and friends The third and fourth days we begin with run-throughs and spend any remaining time working on specific areas. The entire cast is an active participant in making our play come to life. By the fifth day we are ready to perform.

Important Lessons

One of the most important lessons we learned in putting on a Shakespeare play was to be relaxed. For example, we keep the expectations for the costumes and the scenery simple, so that no one feels stressed. Producing a play seems like a huge task, but we did it. We realized that it is more important to enjoy the experience than to have everything perfect. In fact, if we waited until everything was perfect, we would never produce a play!

Cobweb and Mustardseed in A Midsummer Night's Dream
Cobweb and Mustardseed in A Midsummer Night's Dream
Another goal we adopted was trying to help each student to shine. If we had students who could play an instrument, dance, or fence, we would fit their talents into our production. We also recruited students to take pictures, design t-shirts and run the light board. As each student contributed his or her creative talents, the productions grew richer than we could have thought possible.

As the years have passed and one play has followed another, we have found that Shakespeare's words strike a chord in all of us. We have learned about the human condition and the deeper forces that motivate us. By immersing ourselves in the various plays, we have acquired new vocabulary and speech patterns. To this day the lines run through our heads and come out at odd times.

The process of preparing the play also sparked further research in some students. "Why was Shylock treated this way?" "How can I portray my character better?" We have also made new friends and found new hobbies. Perhaps most importantly, for a week each summer we have experienced a work of enduring art from the inside.

Checklist for a Shakespeare Camp

Decide on your play and find the script you will use. We have used comedies because they are easier for younger students. The unabridged scripts can be found at libraries and online at Bartlebys.com. We learned (the hard way) that scripts need to be abridged both for the benefit of the students and the attention span of our audience. This is an age-old tradition, dating back to Shakespeare's day. You can abridge your own play or you can find abridged versions in print and online.

Find your venue. We have used stages at a church, a college, and a private school. Since we try to keep our camp cost low (around $25 per family), we try to find a place that will rent to us for a low price or free. We arrange to use the stage from 9 AM to 2 PM Monday through Thursday, and from 4-9 PM on Friday, the day of the performance.

Recruit your players. We have used word-of-mouth and email announcements to explain the play we will produce and details such as age requirements, audition date, and camp dates.

Optional: Conduct auditions and assign roles. Our first year we simply assigned roles as students asked for them. Later, auditions became necessary due to increased interest.

Send reminders to students and parents to work on memorization. We used email for our reminders and made a goal of half the lines to be memorized by a certain date and all the lines by the week before camp.

If there is interest, host committee meetings for scenery and costumes. In the beginning we had a parent run the set committee, but later the students took responsibility. Our costume committee standardized the costumes and helped with sewing.

Optional: Recruit a parent or student to coordinate any musicians you might include in the play. Usually this was a parent whose student was performing. Shakespeare plays often include a song or a dance, which gives fun opportunities for musicians to use their talents.

Optional: Recruit students to design the program cover and a camp t-shirt.

Recruit parents for various tasks. Depending on your needs, ideas might include coaching, make-up, babysitting for the children of volunteers, photographing the camp, and planning a reception after the play.

Now you're ready to conduct your Shakespeare Camp!

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