Shakespeare For the Fun of It

'I don't just deal with the text, I also deal with the rhythm," says Julie Clemmons, director of Infinite Kids, a nonprofit after-school program. "Like Sir John Gielgud said, if you learn the text just by the iambic pentameter, if you speak in the rhythm it's written in, you don't have to know what you're saying. As long as you just follow the rhythm of it, the meaning and clarity comes through." On Sunday, April 28, the San Diego Shakespeare Society presents its second annual Student Shakespeare Festival in Balboa Park. "We hope to eventually rival Denver," says Mike Auer, executive director of the festival. Last year, 90 schools participated and hundreds of spectators turned out for Denver's 22nd annual student Shakespeare festival.

This year Auer is discouraging participating students from performing the "Pyramus and Thisbe" scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream. The scene depicts characters putting on a play and is intentionally performed poorly for comic effect. "It's a corny fun scene and kids love to do it," he says. "I loved doing it when I was in junior high, but it can get a little tedious and old, and we wanted to get beyond that."

Clemmons's students, ranging from the 1st grade to 11th, will perform three ten-minute scenes from The Tempest. "It's all about fantasy and illusion, something kids really love -- magic and fairies -- and it's a play that's messing with adults, too," she says. "It's all about adults acting foolishly; there's drunkenness and attempted murder."

There is only one female character in the play, and 7 of the 11 students performing the scenes are girls. "At first, a few of my girls wanted me to change it so that they were women, but once we started doing the text, they saw that it didn't make sense -- they had to be men." Clemmons makes all of the costumes for her students.

A third-grader named Ben is playing the part of Gonzalo, the "old fat counselor." While rehearsing one scene, Ben spoke his lines and then asked Clemmons, "What did I just say?" In the scene, Gonzalo says, "When every grief is entertain'd that's offer'd, comes the entertainer...." The character Sebastian then interjects, "A dollar," suggesting that the entertainer would receive payment, to which Gonzalo quips, "Dolor comes to him, indeed: you have spoken truer than you purposed."

"It's a play on words," explains Clemmons. She asked her students to look up "dolor" in the dictionary. She then explained to Ben that when Sebastian said a dollar would befall the entertainer, Gonzalo made a pun using the homonym "dolor," which means "intense sadness."

One challenging aspect of teaching Shakespeare to children, says Auer, is the archaic text. "I don't think they'll ever encounter a denser language, but if they can take apart something that's 400 years old and find the meaning, they don't have to be afraid of what they read. That's a powerful tool."

The biggest challenge on the performing end is voice projection. "Even though there are a couple of microphones in front, it's not enough. They've got to be loud. The first objective as an actor is to be heard and understood, and if you can't do that, you can't make a connection with the audience."

"You don't just teach Shakespeare," says Clemmons, "you're teaching English, history, and geography. When we did As You Like It last year, we talked about war stuff. That's always a big discussion."

Many of the students relate to their characters. Clemmons recalls one girl who came away from her experience with Twelfth Night with a better understanding of human emotion. "She saw that people can be malicious and the pain it inflicts. She thinks about the character of Malvolio when she sees people being treated unfairly, and it makes her think about how she treats people around her."

Clemmons and Auer insist that interpreting Shakespeare for elementary school students is not as difficult as it seems. "It helps to have a snack time," says Clemmons. "I watch carefully for their melting points, like if I have to repeat something a couple of times, when they start getting antsy and can't sit still or when they're onstage and keep coming offstage to get a snack."

"There are three basic questions," Auer explains. "Who are you, where are you, and what do you want. An eight-year-old may not understand the complexity of what Macbeth may want, but you could take it to the playground, perhaps to a bully he knows that has made his life miserable -- try to translate it to their own experience." -- Barbarella

Student Shakespeare Festival Saturday, April 28 12:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. Prado Walkway Balboa Park Cost: Free Info: 619-583-8525 or www.sandiegoshakespearesociety.org

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