The After-School Shakespeare Club
A teacher at an international school led his upper elementary English-language learners through a triumphant, self-created reimagining of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
To Be or Not to Be
That is not the question. If you have an opportunity to teach your students to perform their own version of a Shakespeare play, then the question really is: "How can you do this?" The answer is: "As an extra-curricular drama club" -- and this post will explain how to do that.
This year I have been teaching fourth grade, and I wanted to fulfill a long-held ambition of giving children, most of whom are learning English as an additional language, an opportunity to participate in an after-school Shakespeare drama club. The extracurricular schedule is 45 minutes once a week. Given we had to create, write, rehearse, and perform a play, I decided to run the club over two extracurricular periods. The participants -- students from grades 3, 4 and 5 -- were happy to make that commitment, understanding that producing a Shakespeare play takes time!
Here is a breakdown of the four-month timeframe.
Month 1: A Fool's Paradise (or Deciding Upon a Text and Auditions)
The elementary school librarian helpfully circulated abridged novelizations of Shakespeare's plays so that the students could explore the choices. I required them to use their recently acquired persuasive writing skills to convince the rest of the troupe about their choice. Romeo and Juliet won, with A Midsummer's Night Dream and, surprisingly, The Taming of the Shrew close behind. I did point out that this was a play with expressions of love, something that many students find a giggly distraction. The actors were adamant. They could find fun ways to express love.
For the auditions, I asked the students to prepare a one-minute presentation, which could be a monologue, a scene from the play, or something original. I was clear about the expectations: preparation was required and there were no second chances. This was a necessary way to identify some older students who had enthusiasm but lacked commitment. Their ad-libbed rehearsals failed.
Two fourth-grade girls cleverly divided up the role of Juliet. One would be the happy and loving Juliet, the other the tragic and doom-laden Juliet. Romeo was trickier. The two boys we had in the cast wanted to be the dueling Tybalt and Mercutio. A fifth-grade girl insisted that she could be Romeo, and why not? Shakespeare had boys play girls and women, so we would reverse that sexist tradition.
Month 2: But, Soft! What Light Through Yonder Window Breaks? (or Learning Acting Skills and Starting the Script)
At this stage, I wrote a detailed summary of the plot and sent copies home for reading homework. I then used this plot summary to direct reenactments of the story, focusing on core acting skills: projecting voice, expressing emotion, learning where to stand on a stage. Once we became familiar with the story, we sat down together and wrote the 32-page script. This took around five weeks. I typed directly over the plot text using a Google Doc, which could be shared with the students. I asked them to invent dialogue that expressed the story, and the older students logged into their Google Drive accounts so that we could all collaboratively type together.
We included many original but Shakespearean-sounding rhyming couplets, in honor of the play's high level of poetry. The advantage was that rhyming couplets helped many students remember lengthy amounts of lines. This creative writing phase truly made the play our version, giving the students a sense of ownership and pride. The actors playing Juliet were especially keen to keep their favorite famous original lines. The fifth-grade students insisted on adding some jokes with modern-day references, and rightly so as these became some of the most popular parts for the audience.
Months 3 and 4: What Dreams May Come (or Rehearsals and Performances)
I was thankful for the extra time. Students were absent due to sickness, school trips, and other commitments. We just carried on rehearsing, week after week, using my classroom with the tables set in a big inverted U shape to create a stage, and large moveable boards down each side to help create exit points. We made adaptations to the romantic scenes, such as a pair of cardboard lips on a pole for Romeo to use when kissing Juliet. We also put in funny "ahhhhhh" sound effects for the balcony scene, which helped lessen the pressure on the young actors expressing their characters' intense feelings.
I planned for three performances: two for their peers and younger students, and the final one for parents. The news spread about the play and four more classes were desperate to see it. So we added a final fourth show to be performed on the penultimate day of the school year. The only problem was that my fifth grade actors were busy with transition events in the middle school. Instead, my fourth-grade actors rose to the challenge. One of the Juliets (who had consistently leaned everyone's lines so that she could help when people were absent) spent a weekend learning Romeo's lines. The second Juliet was very happy to have the whole part. Three other students, new to the group, leapt at the chance to take part, one learning the lines overnight. The result, which we filmed, was the best show of the entire run.
Passing Through Nature to Eternity
Creating the play was one of the highlights of the year for me. My students quoted it as one of their favorite activities. Parents told me stories of their children transformed in confidence, having spent weeks quoting their lines at the dinner table. Younger students gave surprisingly thoughtful feedback to the actors. Everyone in our international school community was exposed to the English language in arguably its finest form, and we could take part in Shakespeare's 400th birthday. Not bad for an after-school club!
Have you had any Shakespearean adventures with your students? If so, I would love to hear about them!