July 6, 2016
Amanda Karioth Thompson,
Council on Culture & Arts
After a long hiatus, the Southern Shakespeare Company is back and better than ever. What began more than 20 years ago as a Shakespeare festival in Kleman Plaza has been resurrected as an organization that offers not only a free annual festival but also much more. Over the past three years, educational programming has been developed including workshops, classroom experiences, a sonnet contest, and performance opportunities for youngsters. This year marked the first summer camp called Damsels, Daggers, & Death.
Campers ranged from kindergarteners to teens and were grouped into separate elementary, middle, and high school camps. During the week-long sessions, they all got the opportunity to practice acting skills, build stage presence, play improvisational games, and explore one of the Bard’s most beloved plays,”Romeo and Juliet.” The elementary school participants were especially excited to delve into the Elizabethan era.
Nine-year old Caroline Cox was drawn to this camp because she likes “learning about Shakespeare and how he puts the words together.” Ellie Leeman, also 9, agreed and said, “I like that he’s poetic in everything he does.”
As much poet as playwright, Shakespeare is well known for his sonnets. Campers analyzed Sonnet 18 which concludes with “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” Caroline was particularly moved by this sentiment and explained: “It’s about poetry and if men can breathe and eyes can see, then people can keep reading it over the years, decades and centuries so the poetry is still alive if we’re alive.”
Revelations like this were common among campers who eagerly took in Shakespeare’s 400-year-old ideas and related them back to their own, modern lives. After reading and reinterpreting “Romeo and Juliet,” a play fraught with conflict, middle school campers, Danielle Johnson, 11 and Rylee Bunton, 12 took away an important lesson about mediating disputes. “You don’t always have to make things violent,” said Danielle, “you can listen to other people and see what they feel.” Rylee added “you can try and find better ways to resolve things.”
These are exactly the kinds of messages that Phil Croton, education and outreach director, hopes the campers will take away. “The kids really are getting into Shakespeare and they do appreciate that he’s not a dusty old author. I’m just amazed at some of their knowledge and their understanding, even at this level of elementary school and kindergarten children.”
Croton recounted a story about a camp theater game. Participants pretended to be any fictional character and gave clues to the others. Caroline’s clue was that she was a female character from “Romeo and Juliet.” “I was guessing, is it Juliet, is it Lady Montague, on and on, nope, nope, nope. I’ve been doing this for years and there is no other female character. I was thinking you’ve got the wrong play.” Caroline revealed that she was Rosaline, a character whom the audience never sees or hears. “Yep, 50 years of Shakespeare and I’m undone by a fourth-grader,” Croton quipped.
Though bested every now and then, Croton has a deep knowledge and understanding of the theater in general and Shakespeare in particular. His parents enrolled him in drama school soon after his stage debut in a school play at age 11. A Londoner, he was cast in West End and BBC productions as a child. Though he worked in banking for years, theater was his first love and he found his way back to it, teaching at the Theatre Royal in the UK.
It might seem an ambitious goal to introduce Shakespearean works to very young children, and Croton understands why. “It’s the language that gets in the way. People think it’s too hard but people who went to see Shakespeare in his own day couldn’t even understand it. He made up 500 words.”
Croton gave an example: “That the thing with a handle on it that you put your clothes in, he called it luggage. No one had ever heard the word before. So to a 7-year-old or a 5-year-old, you don’t have to know or understand every word, you have to let it flow over you.”
There are universal truths within Shakespeare’s work that are timeless and ageless. The language isn’t a barrier, but a bridge. “He talks about love, jealously, hatred and power and those are things that children can understand.” By encouraging youngsters to relate to the material, interpret its meaning, and find themselves within the words, Croton knows that the work will live on, just like in Sonnet 18.
Amanda Karioth Thompson is the Education and Exhibitions Director for the Council on Culture & Arts. COCA is the capital area’s umbrella agency for arts and culture (www.tallahasseearts.org).