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Stage Swagger & Swordplay: Adapting Shakespeare for Kids

TeachHUB Interview

Shakespeare for KidsBrendan Kelso is the mastermind behind the Shakespeare for Kids collection, the book series of Shakespeare plays adapted for children that are creating a young fan base for the Bard.

Learn how Brendan's creative plays are making Shakespeare infectiously fun for you and your students in this exclusive TeachHUB interview.

Where did your passion for Shakespeare stem from?

11th grade - I entered a Shakespeare competition and did a soliloquy from Midsummer - it was Bottom's speech, "Methought I was..."  out of 120 kids, I received honorable mention - there was something about that moment in front of the judges where I just clicked.  I felt like I rose to another level.  I could see and think about what the audience was doing, while still performing - it was like I was in two places at once.  Serious dose of adrenalin there! And my 12th grade year, I went to the Ashland Oregon Shakespeare Festival, best in the country.

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How did the Shakespeare for Kids Books come to be?

About 7 years ago, I took a year off of work to be with my newborn son.  Soon, my wife basically said, "you need to bring in some cash".  She was already in with the Parks & Rec as a after school science program, so she got me to do "Hamlet in a can".  I wrote up my first script. The kids LOVED it. 

My first group wanted to do another play and, at the same time, a home school group requested that I teach their kids.  At that point, I started doing session after session with kids constantly returning for another dose of the Bard.  I got approached by two different theater groups who paid me, so they could use my scripts with their kids.  It was clear there was a demand for this, so I found an on-demand publishing house and went to it.

What play do children most respond to?

Younger ones, ages 5-7, tend to like A Midsummer Night's Dream - it's an easy, goofball play with fairies, kings, and magic; however, since they are at the beginning ages of reading, this is typically presented as a bedtime story or an interactive play between parent and kid.

As they get a little older, the tragedies are much more fun and entertaining.  Hamlet is my favorite. There is nothing funnier than watching kids melodramatically die on stage.  And at the end of it there are 7 dead bodies littered all over the stage. It's hilarious and the audience is ALWAYS laughing.

I must add the Macbeth is a favorite for many kids for the creepy, smelly witches that are in the play. "Double Double toil and trouble..." Oh, yeah, and if you have kids that like a mix of it all, tragedy, comedy, and romance, well then you have to go with Romeo & Juliet.

Why not focus on more modern literature rather than revamping Shakespeare?

Modern literature has only risen on the shoulders of Shakespeare.  If you ever get a chance go to Shakespeare's home in Stratford, England, you will see they have showcased a window pain in his house that has people's signatures all over it.  What is particularly interesting about this window pain is that some of these signatures are over 200 years old.  More importantly, they show you where Charles Dickens and Mark Twain signed, among others.  Shakespeare has been the inspiration for authors to write for hundreds of years, and the best part is that these authors, like Dickens and Twain, inspired other, more modern authors.  So, in a sense, I am focusing on modern literature, just in a round-about, 400 year old way.

What is your favorite Shakespearean work? Why?

Midsummer Night's Dream and Hamlet - I can't just pick one.  Midsummer is mainly due to Puck - he is as mischievous as they come, yet very clever.   And he just loves laughing at the situation even when it does not go right, which is most of the time.  He laughs at himself and does not take the situation too seriously.  I guess he reminds me of me... 

As for Hamlet, well, that play has so many levels of depth, it's ridiculous.  It can get you thinking and contemplating and thinking till you forget to realize that you have been thinking all night long! 

Shakespeare for KidsHow is the theater experience positive for students?  

In regards to Shakespeare - when you see it or hear it performed, it makes so much more sense.  But if you just read it - bleh... BORING, can't digest.  It sounds like, "blah, blah, blah..." and I lose track after about 1-2 minutes. 

As for PlayingWithPlays'  versions of melodramatic Shakespeare for Kids, well, it's just about opening the door to Shakespaere.  Our main goal is to have fun.  If you can make Shakespeare fun and easy to understand the kids will teach themselves.  There is no better way to learn then to have fun, and once they are hooked on Shakespeare (and I will guarantee you that they will be!), they will take it from there.  They will be their own best teacher.

What tips do you have for teachers to encourage shy students who are resistant to participating in class plays?  

Well, if they are boys, start by giving them a sword.  But there are other things to do when putting together a short play. You can create behind the scene roles. Create parts for someone to manage the props as the assistant director (they are always reading along to make sure people know their lines), and someone to help create the set, costumes, lighting, or sound, etc. 

Also, when I do auditions, they are not "normal" auditions.  Again, the goal here is to HAVE FUN. Make Shakespeare fun, and the kids will teach themselves, never forget this piece.  During my auditions I always tell kids, "you know, in Shakespeare plays, characters die.  So, what I want you to do is to go up on stage and give me your best "melodramatic death".  Kids LOVE this.  It helps break the ice so they become more comfortable with Shakespeare.  He's not so intimidating.

Do you find that school budget cuts keeps groups like yours and other arts-focused curriculum out of the classroom?

I hear a lot of teachers having issues with this.  Again, my goal is to have fun.  I work with many teachers on creative ways to get around the school budget issues and keep them loving Shakespeare.

What is the reasoning behind the Shakespeare Insult Generator, you craven, earth-vexing harpy?

To break the ice... it goes somewhat with the question about shy or resistant students.  But, this is a great tool for teenagers or even young kids who are already in the mindset that Shakespeare is this evil 400-year-old dude who is set on torturing them in their English class.  I can not tell you the number of tweets I see daily of high school kids cursing Shakespeare for making their lives miserable.  If only they were approached in the proper light or venue, the story would be so much different.  If I can get them playing with the insult generator as a start, well, then we are started on the right track. 

Let me tell you a short story about the insult generator that happened to me recently.  I was at the LA Book Festival, and this mom and young boy came to my booth.  I sold them one book and gave them the insult generator.  The next day, the boy came back with is mom and dad. 

  • His dad said, "we will take the entire set". 
  • "Ahhh, he enjoyed reading Hamlet then?" I replied. 
  • And he said, "Nope.  But he had so much fun with the insult generator, that we want to keep this love of Shakespeare going!  And I found your Hamlet hilarious!" 

As I said before, it's just a pathway to open a bigger door to the wonderful world of Shakespeare.

How do you make Shakespeare more exciting for your students? Share in the comments section!

Learn more about the Shakespeare for Kids collection at their website.