Shakespeare. If the name makes you remember long days in high school English, an outing to a Shakespearean play doesn’t sound like family fun. But think it over: summer Shakespeare productions are held across the country, many of them in parks or amphitheatres, some with free admission. Imagine: picnicking under the stars as a great story unfolds in front of you—plus an educational bonus for your children. What could be better?
“Sitting in the theatre witnessing a play is a participatory experience,” says Susie DuVal, Associate Director of Education for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. “The power of having that kind of communal experience is hard to beat in our society that tends to keep us isolated from the people around us with our home entertainment centers, video games, cell phones and iPods.”
Sure, you may be thinking, “Shakespeare? I don’t even understand his plays. Why would I make my kids watch one?”
First of all, theater is good for the brain:
- A report published in the Arts Education Policy Review cited “reliable causal links” between studying theater and increased verbal skills.
- The College Board reported that students with strong involvement in the visual and performing arts scored 100 points higher on their SATs than students with lower levels of involvement.
Shakespeare is especially good for the brain:
- A study published in the Journal of Aesthetic Education found that if students could “decode” one complex text (like a Shakespeare play), they learned reading comprehension skills that could be used on a wide range of other materials. In other words, learning how to understand Shakespeare improves a student’s overall reading skills.
DuVal says, “Shakespeare is certainly a reach for young people, but they are up to the challenge… His plays are really bottomless in the amount of richness they offer. We consistently find that each time we revisit one of Shakespeare’s plays we find new connections to our own lives and the lives of our students that we didn’t discover the last time we worked on it.”
Ready to take the family on an excursion to Shakespeare-land? Here are some tips:
- Know Thy Child. Can your child sit quietly for three hours? A Shakespeare play may take that long. If your child has a short attention span, look for a “kid-friendly,” edited version, which may run as little as forty minutes.
- Know Thy Play. Got a boy hooked on video games and scary movies? Try Henry V or Macbeth. Is there a Harry Potter fanatic in the house? Check out A Midsummer Night’s Dream or The Tempest. Need something for a hopeless romantic? Think Twelfth Night or As You Like It. Want to walk on the silly side? Comedy of Errors is perfect for fans of Steve Carell or Jim Carrey.
- Find Thy Options. There are Shakespeare festivals in almost every state of the union, and people in major cities may have several different festivals they could attend. Check the calendar section of your local paper, search online, or try one of our favorites. Consider the “extras” each offers—many festivals include pre-show activities, backstage tours, and educational programs for audience members of all ages.
- Do Thy Homework. As a family, read a synopsis of the play before you go, or at least go over the main characters and important events. Some theater companies offer study guides on their websites, or try SparkNotes or Enotes.
- Give Thyself Time. When you see the show, give yourself time to get used to the language. Like watching a foreign movie, you’ll be surprised how much you can follow, even if you don’t catch all the words.
- Use Thy Intermission. There will be one (or more) breaks during the play. Use these wisely—and not just by being first in line at the bathroom. “When you are seeing a play with a young person,” DuVal says, “check in with them at intermission to see what they understand so far and what questions they have.”
Summer Shakespeare can become a great family tradition. If your children really enjoy it, consider an acting class or summer program. After all, as Shakespeare said:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts.
Check out Education.com's list of Ten Terrific Shakespeare Festivals.