So I initially ask whether any kids have been to theatre camp, figuring I’ll need to give lessons in how to read a script. Nope, I’m assured that there was some sort of whole school assembly in first grade and that they all have read scripts before. Cool.
I bring up the tiny detail that in Shakespeare’s day, no girls were allowed and the boys played the girls parts. So I ask for a vote whether we should have the boys play boy parts and girl play girl parts (“Yayyy!!!”), or if we should mix it up and maybe a girl plays a boy’s part and a boy plays a girl’s part (“Nooo!!!!!!”) So we stick with conventional gender casting (so I thought).
I go to the whiteboard, where I will offer play by play. I start by drawing Theseus, a smiley face with a crown, and Hippolyta, a smiley face with long hair and a crown. “That’s his queen,” says one girl.
“No,” say I, “Not yet. When the play opens, Theseus and Hippolyta are going to be married. So she’s not his queen yet!”
Anyway I continue, drawing Lysander and Hermia (with a big lovey heart between them, and arrows in both directions), then Demetrius with a lovey heart pointing at Hermia (and no arrow back). Then I draw Helena with a lovey heart pointing to Demetrius, and no lovey heart back.
“This is complicated!” I hear one student say.
“It’s just getting started!” I say back. I explain to them what’s to happen, about how Demetrius has Hermia’s father (who does not appear in this edited version) on his side, and how Lysander and Hermia are going to elope into the woods, with Demetrius and Helena following.
I explain to the children that this play is Shakespeare’s silliest play, and that they should not be afraid to get silly with it. “If you get picked to read for one of the characters in love, then you need to be over the moon and stars, I will die without you, I have to go kill myself if I can’t be with you…” with it. I am trying to put them at ease and encourage them to have fun with it. We shall see.
I distribute scripts to my first actors and….. ACTION!
First problem is I have drastically overestimated the reading ability of these children. I mean, I get that there’s plenty of words they will have never seen before, and I am liberal in boosting them over those hurdles. But remember where I said “for any given speech I have no way of knowing whether it will take the student 10 seconds or a minute?” It becomes apparent that I’ve got a worst case scenario on my hands, and that this is going to take forever.
Act I Scene 1 is a long scene if you’ve never stopped to notice. We hear about the royal wedding, we meet the young Athenians, we hear about their history, we get the whole “marry Demetrius or die” thing, the royals leave, Lysander and Hermia plot to escape, Helena returns and learns the plot… two thirds of the way through this scene I’m thinking, “This is not going to work.” But we struggle through.
What none of them seem willing to do is move around. They have stood in a line, and read as their part comes up. At “Stand forth, Demetrius” I say, “Demetrius? Stand forth! Step forward!” which he does. You’d then hope that at “Stand forth, Lysander” my Lysander would figure it out and he, too, would step up. Nope.
Funny moment #1 — At one point during this scene, my Lysander referred to his true love as “Harmonica.” The kids’ brains at this age do this sort of “I recognize the pattern of several of the letters of that word, therefore I will guess that it is a word I know that also has that pattern.” Herm something with an a on the end becomes harmonica! Makes sense.
We exeunt At the end I ask if anybody followed that. They all agree that no, nobody followed that. Someone notes that “It sounds like the way they talk at church,” which I thought was interesting because I can’t recall any specific Latin in the text at this point. I point to my diagram and how it connects to what was just played out in front of them.
The next scene is the Mechanicals, which I will bring them back into (a) some opportunity for silliness and, more, importantly, (b) much shorter speeches. I go back to the white board and explain the Mechanicals who want to perform for the royal wedding. I also explain Oberon and Titania, the fairy king and queen who are in an argument, who are wandering around the woods as well causing trouble.
The casting of the Mechanicals is interesting because so many of them have so few lines, I didn’t want there to be fighting about who got the good parts. I held Bottom aside, distributed the others randomly, then explained Bottom. “Bottom is the biggest role in the play,” I said. “He’s got a lot of lines. He thinks he’s in charge of the actors, and he never stops talking. Whoever takes this role has to be confident enough to perform a character like that. Who is up for it?” Hands shoot up. I give it to one boy, who unfortunately does not end up being the strongest reader, but everybody’s got their strengths and weaknesses and I’m not here to criticize the kids.
I have given the Mechanical parts to boys and girls alike so that it’s not lopsided for girls parts. Turns out to work because at least for this scene I’ve given Flute to a girl, who gets to deliver the “Let me not play a woman, I have a beard coming!” line. This gets my first semblance of a laugh of understanding from the audience.
My Bottom (ahem) is struggling so I try to help him out with more direction. I explain that Quince is supposed to be the director, but Bottom thinks he knows everything. I throw in the line that, “In his head, he’s Brad Pitt.” <cricket chirp> I even pause at that one, surprised at the lack of reaction. “Who’s that?” asks a student. I move on. I tell Bottom that the second Quince stops talking, he’s to jump in and talk over him. He does ok.
As we get through that scene and do a time check I realize that we are not going to get anywhere near the end of this play at this rate, and that we’ll have to cut like crazy. I want to get to the end because the kids have made all the props that will not be useful until the final scene. So we agree quickly to cut out the adventures of the Athenians in the forest and focus only on Bottom and his merry crew.
To be continued, again… (sorry but the day job calls!)