I am a Shakespeare fan, and I’ve been wondering how best to get my kids excited about him too. I know there is nothing worse than your parents or teachers dragging you to see a play about something that doesn’t seem relevant to you and in a language you don’t really grasp.
So I was interested to find out that the Folger Shakespeare Library offers monthly kids’ programs. The Folger, located on Capitol Hill, houses the largest collection of Shakespeariana in the world. Yes, more than anywhere in England, even. The collection includes playbills, artwork, costumes, and most of all First Folios (the first published collection of Shakespeare’s plays). There are only about 245 copies known to survive and the Folger owns 82, the most in the world.
Every first Saturday of the month the Folger presents “Shake Up Your Saturdays,” free family programs that explore a different Shakespeare theme each time. There are two sessions, one that begins at 10 a.m. recommended for 5-7 year olds, and the other at 11 a.m. for 8-14 year olds. Each session lasts one hour.
I signed my kids up for the Kings and Conflicts program, mainly because it promised mock sword fighting. The 10 a.m. program started out in the Folger Class Room, which is in a building across from the historic marble-clad Folger Library. The weather was warm and sunny so the class moved outside, to the lawn in front of the Folger Library’s north facade.
The docent, Amy Thompson, addressed everyone with an honorific, such as “Sir Andrew,” and handed out to each of the 11 kids a wooden stick, standing in for a sword. She demonstrated some stage combat moves: how to block, how to duck when your opponent takes a swing at your head, and how to fake getting stabbed in your gut. She then let the kids pair up and try out their new mock fighting skills on each other – in slow motion, of course. My six-year-old son liked the fighting part, but was shy when it came to acting out a death scene. A few other kids really got into it, “dying” quite dramatically. One little girl, though, began to cry when it was her turn to “die.” Her mom, hanging out nearby as all the parents were, reassured her that this was all make-believe.
Next, they added dialogue to the fighting, Shakespearean insults to hurl at the enemy. “Out, you mad-headed ape!” one half of each pair of kids said, quoting from Henry IV Part 1. “Let vultures gripe thy guts!” replied the other half, a line from Merry Wives of Windsor. The younger kids might not have known exactly what the insults meant, but they liked the sound of it, which I guess is the point. Even after we got home, my son kept saying, “you mad-headed ape!”
Then the kids acted out a short battleground speech from Henry V, led by another docent who read the words and demonstrated how to act each line. When he got to the words “blast of war,” the kids made a horn sound. “Then imitate the action of the tiger” had the kids growling as ferociously as they could. And finally “Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’” was the line where everyone was supposed to shout and charge the line of parents who were watching the performance.
The program ended with the docent reciting a short speech from Richard II that was all about murder and deposing kings – relevant to the theme, but I could see some kids were getting squirmy.
The 11 a.m. program for older kids was almost the same format as the earlier program but with a little more discussion of the language, and instead of wooden sticks, they got wooden swords. “That’s more funner,” said my son who jealously watched as his 10-year-old sister went to pick up her sword. The swordplay took part in the Folger’s Elizabethan Garden this time. Other programs, depending on the theme, have different elements and activities, such as songs, props, and makeshift costumes. But always there are lines and scenes from Shakespeare’s plays.
So, did the experience make Bard fans out of my kids? Probably not yet. But it did introduce them to Shakespeare in a way that was a lot more interactive and fun than my first experiences were as a kid. They got an earful of his words, a feel for how plays are staged, and a sample of the type of themes and stories he told.
Before or after the program, it’s worth it to visit the Folger Library itself, including its Elizabethan Theater and an impressive, high-ceilinged Tudor-style hall where rotating exhibits are held
WHAT TO KNOW
- The Saturday programs are free but sign up ahead of time online to reserve a space. “We don’t have a ‘hard’ enrollment limit,” says Carol Ann Lloyd-Stanger, the Folger’s Visitor Education Program Manager, “although we try to keep the programs to about 30 children (and their families).”
- Upcoming themes include: “Much Ado About Shakespeare” on August 6, and “Shakespeare and Celebrities” on September 3.
- The current exhibit “America’s Shakespeare” is on view until July 24. The next exhibit is “Will & Jane,” which explores the literary celebrity of both Shakespeare and Austen, and runs August 6 to November 6, 2016.
- Nearest Metro is Capitol South (Orange, Blue, Silver lines). There is limited street parking.
Photos by Amy Alipio.