Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Story of Our Shakespeare Festival

 ...or How to Do Shakespeare in a Group without Meeting as a Group.

Yep, sounds a little oxymoronic, but that's the short of it!  Let me explain...

I have had lots and lots of questions about how we do Shakespeare in a group after mentioning here and on Instagram our twice-annual Shakespeare Festival with friends.

I'm going to give you a hint: we don't!  At least, not really.

I think it's wonderful when families get together to all read, act, rehearse, and take part in a shared performance of Shakespeare together.  We have a really fabulous youth Shakespeare troupe that meets and puts on top-notch full-length plays three times a year, and that's probably my ideal vision for a Shakespeare club for homeschoolers.

But the troupe requires long and intense hours of practice stretching into the evenings, including from the parents, who are responsible for volunteering in some capacity.  It's not a good fit for our family right now.  So for now and for the foreseeable future, we enjoy the troupe's performances from the audience.

Over a year ago, Amber and I were chatting about her wonderful Shakespeare class plans, which she runs for local families in 6-week sessions.  She described a couple different ways that she has managed them, once reading through the play together and then making the performance more of a set of speeches and character introductions, another time acting out scenes and stringing them together with the help of a narrator. I was inspired, but both of those options also were a bit more than I could handle, having just had a baby.  I filed them away for a later date.

But she got me thinking: wasn't there a way to give my kids a group Shakespeare experience that I could handle?

One of my local friends and I decided to try a little experiment.  We would tell the kids (my oldest six, her oldest three, all ten and under) to decide on a scene from a play of their choice. They would assign the parts, learn their own lines, handle staging and directing, and choose costumes.  We would give them a couple chances to meet up and practice together, but mostly they would be practicing at home with their own family members.  And then when they were ready -- say, six weeks out -- we would choose a performance date and meet for the play!

The kids were thrilled and got right to work.  Caveat: we each had bossy older daughters to help out with directing younger siblings, and all of our kids were familiar with Shakespeare and had studied several of the same plays.  They chose the first scene from Midsummer Night's Dream, cast their parts, learned their lines (and helped the littles learn theirs too), and picked costumes from the dress-up bin.  We met at a park a couple times for an hour to let them practice while we chatted.  And then we set a date and chose a location: a little outdoor stage at a local county park.

This performance was a trial run: could the kids handle the whole event on their own well enough that we could open this up to other families too?

Answer: yes!  It was great!  We spent the rest of that afternoon enjoying the creek and a picnic lunch together -- and plotting our next event. ;)

We wanted to open the opportunity up to a bigger crowd, but there came the difficulty: it had been easy enough to arrange for our two families to meet at the park a couple mornings for practice.  The more families involved, the more difficult that is to schedule.

Instead of including all the families in the same performance, we decided to make the event a bunch of mini-performances.  So some families might choose to come together to prepare a scene. But a family who can't arrange practices outside the home could just do a scene with their own family. Amber suggested calling it a Shakespeare Festival, because that's what it is!

I sent out a few guidelines:
Hi friends!
I'd like to invite any interested families to join us in performing and enjoying a Shakespeare Festival with our homeschool group.  This will be an opportunity for your children to perform or recite lines from Shakespeare in a group setting.  Students can choose whatever lines they want, whatever length they want, whatever play they want. They can participate in groups or alone.  Whole families are encouraged to participate -- there is no minimum age.  Children are encouraged to prepare their own scenes, come up with their own costumes, manage their own rehearsals.  They can memorize their pieces or recite from a book/paper if they would prefer.  This will be a low-stress, low-key performance and is meant to be very low-work for the moms. :) 
Here's how it will work: 
:: Select a piece to perform. Students can work individually with a monologue or sonnet, in pairs with a bit of dialogue, or in groups with part or all of a scene.  They can work alone, with siblings, or with another family to perform together.  Pieces can be edited/abridged but should maintain Shakespeare's original language.  When you have chosen your selection, please send that information to me.
:: Be prepared to introduce your piece to the audience briefly. (You may also include a narrator in your group performance if needed to maintain flow from speech to speech due to editing.)
:: Arrange necessary costumes and props -- they need not be elaborate. 
On one weekday morning in <month> we'll come together to take turns performing our pieces for the group.  We'll decide on the date depending on who will be participating.
We have done two such events since then, one in fall and one in spring, and they have both been wonderful experiences for my kids and a pleasure for me as an audience member!  We have so many great families in our circle of friends. One mom hosts us in her beautiful backyard that even has a small stage, and everyone brings snacks to share.

some scenes from our fall festival


and some from our spring festival

Since it technically requires just one meet-up, friends from afar can join in (we had two families come from over an hour away this time, which wouldn't have been possible for an activity with weekly practices), and even those families that are already quite busy can arrange their schedule to accommodate that one day.  Older kids with the passion and time can organize something elaborate, but a student can also just come and recite the lines from their family memory work for the term. That flexibility has been so helpful.

The best part: it's both a rich educational experience and the kids are bearing the work of it. This is the kind of activity that I as an introverted, baby-wrangling mama can handle!

There are lots of different ways to do Shakespeare well in a group, and this is just one. I hope you find one that works for you!


  1. This is genius! I love the idea of a festival rather than a single play!

    1. It really works for the way our particular group is structured. I'm so happy we thought of the option!

  2. I love this idea, and my friend and I are going to give it a shot - thank you so much for the inspiration!

    1. I'd love to hear how it goes when you get it off and running!

  3. Celeste, do you belong to a Charlotte Mason group? I was just wondering, because I have been tossing around the notion of starting one in my area because I know there are other Charlotte Mason-ish homeschoolers in our larger homeschool group, but it's kind of like we're underground. It would be fun for the kids to be involved in activities like this one and like your nature Fridays -- and it would be nice for me, getting to talk to other moms -- but I can't handle anything big and organized right now. Just wondering how you do it?

    1. Hi Angela! We do have a CM group here. It run kind of ala carte: so we have a nature study group, and a CM study group, and a Well-Read Mom book club, and a park day, and this Shakespeare Festival, and families pick and choose which activitis they want to take part in each week. So some moms come to study group and our nature study but don't come to the others. And some moms are not CM, and so they might come to park day and book club but not our more CM-ish activities. I hope that makes sense! So it is not at all big and organized. It is really simple and flexible. Like you, I am not up for organizing (or attending, really) a full-fledge co-op or anything like that, so this works for us!

  4. Wonderful! Thank you so much for this inspiration and information. God reward you!

  5. I'm ran two rounds of a Shakespeare class for upper elementary kids this year, and I'm planning to give your festival idea a whirl this summer. Thanks for sharing in so much detail!

    1. Oh, how fun! I'd love to hear how it goes!

  6. I have written a curriculum for teaching Shakespeare in a co-op setting. I even have a Director's Guide for producing a play with your homeschool group! Check out my resources at :-)