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Thoughts on the Shakespeare play – Why it’s not just a Show

For her entire school life, my daughter Cierewyn has looked forward to this moment: performing in the Grade 9 Shakespeare play. Even from a very young age, she would insist on attending the play every year, often watching every performance of the entire run.

And now the moment has finally arrived. And passed.

As a Grade 9 parent (this is my second time around) it’s almost impossible to remain at arm’s length. We are necessarily involved – through our children and what they share with us of their own inner experiences, through the costumes we stitch, the sets we paint, the hot dinners we make every evening for the cast during the run, the cakes we bake, the teas we serve, the money we take at the door, our interactions with other parents, and finally through witnessing our children's accomplishments on stage. It is as a parent that I see how nourishing the Shakespeare play process is to our children and community and I would like to share my understanding of this.

Despite how it may appear at first glance, there is nothing superficial about mounting the annual Shakespeare play and its value extends far beyond just putting together a marvellous piece of entertainment. If it appears so, then that only demonstrates the success of both its art and how well its secret inner workings are concealed from casual view.

Until the final delivery of the play itself, many months are spent in incubation as the children first study the text and its themes, audition for their favoured role, and then devote many weeks rehearsing their lines and cues. This full-immersion experience over a significant chunk of time is both a vital and enlivening one for it provides our children the rare opportunity to experience the complexity  of both depth and breadth. This stands in stark contrast to a world where we are mostly exposed to that which only skims the surface.  A throw-away world of fast food and slick push-button answers, where entertainment is glib and superficial, consumed in a gulp.

The process of the play on the other hand, is nothing short of a series of conundrums to be resolved together. How do we create a character the audience will believe in? With the resources we have how do we create the illusions of age, of place, of being inside a house? In a marketplace? How do we work with a child's reluctance, shyness, fear, burgeoning acting talent? How do we work with each other’s individual spirits striving towards a common goal that is larger than each one of us? 

Watching on opening night I was struck by each young person’s transformation and how differently they manifested.

For some it was through refining the artistry of their acting abilities, for others it was the immense effort in memorising many lines of complex language, and for others still it was overcoming the terror of making oneself highly visible in a public way.  But beyond individual accomplishment, what struck me most was the extent to which the play is a collective threshold experience.  Up until this moment, life has been “served up” to these children. It has simply “appeared” before them in the form of good and bad events, experiences and learnings – it has all just happened to them.  Then the Grade 9 Shakespeare play comes along.

I have heard from older classes how their worldview significantly alters and becomes sharply divided between before and after the play. For never again can they watch any future productions of Shakespeare (or any piece of theatre for that matter) in the sheer enjoyment of  theatre magic, never again can they be caught up in the  innocent pleasure of the pageantry  before them in quite the same way they did before.  From now on, their perception will always be shaded with the background experiential knowledge of all that happens “behind the scenes” leading up to the moment the curtain rises.    

Through their participation in the play, they become conscious of the process whereby they are now the active creators of what happens on stage. All the intensity and “drama” of the run-up to the performances, the frustrations, the fears, the tensions and antipathies as well as the fun and exhilaration of rehearsals become the building blocks of the resulting performances.  Each child learns how to navigate their own path through the wide spectrum of emotions they will inevitably be called upon to feel, and to develop their growing capacity for social maturity. They begin to get an inkling of how life happens through them.

Of course the process remains invisible; nevertheless, the performances are imbued with all that has gone on before.  Once dress rehearsals are over and performances begin,  the young actors have direct experience of being observed and evaluated; now they have an audience to consider.  The audience serves as both affirming mirror and witness and the actors become acutely aware of the unique impact their performance has, not only on the audience, but on their fellow actors on the stage. 

And so it is in life.  All artistic activity deepens awareness, though not always consciously. That is its function and the Shakespeare play is no exception. It is but a reflection of  the larger drama of Life:  the roles we play in each other’s lives.  How we affect each other.  How each person’s commitment and ability (or lack thereof) to bring their best selves forward affects the whole endeavour? Never is the truth that “All the world’s a stage” more evident than inside the grade 9 Shakespeare play.

To Graham Scannell, Diane Scannell and Janis Merand I want to say this: the way you bring this process to fruition is awe-inspiring to me.  I am humbly aware of what it takes in devotion, energy and inspiration to carry such a project to conclusion and am so grateful our children are fortunate enough to participate in such an important and formative experience.   Thank you. 

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