Teenagers do actually like Shakespeare.
I should clarify that statement slightly – teenagers do not like to read Shakespeare. Teenagers like to do Shakespeare. Teenagers like to get the text up on its feet. They like to move around, exit and enter, carry swords, learn weird old words, speak the speech and bite their thumbs at one another.
But if you set a Complete Works in front of a teenager, they will look at you blankly and then go back to playing Minecraft.
I learned this the hard way this past January when, filled with more idealistic vigor than common sense, I partnered with the Winston Teen Center to present a series of Shakespeare workshops to their members.
The Teen Center is located inside the Winston Community Center in the tiny Oregon town of Winston. The population clocks in at just under 5,500. The Community Center serves the residents with a small library, a senior center, a conference room, a large event space (complete with a stage!), as well as the aforementioned Teen Center. The Teen Center itself has about 150 teens between the ages of 13 and 18 registered, and it provides a safe and entertaining space for them to hang out after school. The place is surprisingly well-appointed, with computers, game consoles, HD TVs, a pool table, and lots of comfy couches. Teens can come and do homework, hang out, eat snacks, and play games. The center is overseen by Jack Holland, the Teen Center Director, an affable, gregarious fellow who also happens to be really into theatre.
I was very impressed by the center, but I noticed the lack of structured activities available for its members. I was also aware that the Winston school system doesn’t really have the budget for a theatre program of any kind. I clearly had an in.
Getting started was surprisingly simple. The conversation went pretty much like this:
Me: Hi! I have a degree in Shakespeare that I wish I was actually using! How would you guys feel about me volunteering to run some weekly Shakespeare workshops at the teen center?
Jack: When can you start?
Me: How about next week?
Jack: See you then!
And that was how I became a volunteer Shakespeare instructor at the Winston Teen Center.
I dubbed my program Shakespeare Time, because I really like Adventure Time and I thought the teens would appreciate the reference. I made cute posters and put them up at the teen center and distributed them around the school, advertising my “informative and fun Shakespeare workshops!” I dug up some of my old PowerPoint lectures and dusted off my Norton Anthology. The day of my first workshop arrived!
Three 13 year old girls showed up for my workshop. One of them was into theatre, and the other two were her friends that she’d dragged along. They had never read Shakespeare, although they had seen Romeo + Juliet and quite liked it even though the language was “weird.” We talked about the movie and their interest and experiences with theatre. Then we talked about cheerleading. I didn’t crack my Norton once. I clearly needed to rethink things.
The next week I returned, armed with my copy of Shakesfear and How to Cure It, a wonderful book by my old professor Ralph Alan Cohen. Its one of my go-to texts for ideas about fun Shakespeare teaching tools. I figured I could do some of the exercises involving Romeo and Juliet, since the girls seemed at least slightly interested. I arrived at the teen center only to be confronted by three completely different girls. The first thing they asked me was, “So when are we doing Romeo and Juliet?”
We talked about it. Once again, no texts were consulted. But at the end of the workshop’s allotted time, I returned to Jack and asked, “So do you think it would be possible to actually do a play here?”
I hadn’t even considered the possibility, honestly. A play was a huge undertaking. But what the hell, why not? I cut Romeo and Juliet down to about an hour and fifteen minutes, and advertised for auditions.
Fifteen teens came to auditions. Twelve of them ended up staying (with one cast member replaced during the final weeks of rehearsals due to the siren call of cheerleading practice). They worked hard. They memorized their lines (mostly). They gathered costumes. They rehearsed. They had line-memorization sleepovers (seriously!). Jack built us a set. And at the end of May, they put on a play. It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t even good in some places (one scene between Juliet and Lady Capulet dissolved into a fit of giggles after they had to ask the prompter for about ten lines in a row). But it was a play. It was their play.
And after it was over, after their parents hugged them and Jack gave all of them flowers, after they had been congratulated by their peers, a gaggle of them came up to me and asked excitedly, “We’re doing this again next year, right?”
And we are! This year, we’re doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We’re starting at the beginning of the school year instead of at the end. We’re going to have some organized, interesting classroom work. We’re going to have guest speakers, a field trip, even some actual funding!
And this year, I will be recording the experience here at The Shakespeare Standard, chronicling the ups and downs of teaching Shakespeare to and making theatre with teens, because it’s a pretty wild ride.
I hope you’ll join me for Shakespeare Time.