Please remember that these are just my experiences and opinions…and those are based on only one production!
1. How many potential actors do you have? If you are limited in numbers of kids interested in performing, be sure to choose a play that doesn’t require a large cast. That doesn’t mean you can’t condense or eliminate smaller parts, but it is just something to consider. Also remember that some plays (“Henry V” comes to mind because of the soldiers and battlefield scenes) just seem to “need” more actors – extras. Again, you don’t have to do that – I mean, isn’t that what the Chorus in “HV” is apologizing for through the whole play?
2. What is the maturity level of your actors? There are simply some plays that might be too mature for younger actors (“Titus Andronicus” for violence, “Measure For Measure” for sexual themes). If you are concerned about that, you may want to consider one of his sillier comedies like “Much Ado” or “Comedy of Errors.”
3. Finally, what play(s) do YOU like? Remember that you are going to be working with this material for at least 2-4 months of your life (probably more as you get your script ready). It is critical that you, the teacher or coach, has enthusiasm for the play. Otherwise, your students are going to hate rehearsals and (heaven forbid!) dislike Shakespeare. Be sure you can be excited about the play to keep your kids going, even when the going gets tough!
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How would you adapt the play for teenagers? Would you try to modernize it or leave it as is? Our drama teacher did Our Town last year instead of one of the cheap plays made for high schools. The kids hated it; one told me he didn't like it because it wasn't funny.
So far I'm sticking with keeping the plays as is. It's been very rewarding to see how the kids are now understanding Shakespeare's language and humor so much better than when we first started - they actually get the jokes now without me having to explain all of them! :) Our "Much Ado" looked Renaissance, and our "Shrew" this summer will have a very similar look to it (primarily because we already have all the Italian-looking stuff - why not use it again??).
Last year the kids overwhelmingly wanted it set in "Shakespeare's time" because they wanted to get to wear the cool costumes...and when I said swords would be involved?? Holy cow, they were thrilled! :)
I've never seen "Our Town," so I don't have a clue what it should be like. It's too bad the kids reacted that way, though!
One of the English professors at my alma-mater, some years ago, received a grant to put on this county wide production of Shakespeare's plays. What is interesting is that all of the students who take her Shakespeare class are eligible to take this 1 credit course and what the college students do is go to one of the local high schools (there were only 4 public high schools so some schools had several college students) and work with the students on performing one scene from any of Shakespeare's plays.
Everything was fair game EXCEPT we weren't allowed to change any of the language. The costuming, staging, interpretation, etc. could be anything the college student wanted it to be as long as it fit the play and the context of the era and so on.
When students had trouble memorizing their lines, we had a dramaturg to just call out what the lines are, but the college student found creative ways to have their lines written on something the students could easily refer to. For example, though I forget exactly which play it was, the scene was a family picnic and two of the characters were reciting their lines as they were playing catch (baseball). Well to assist them, their lines were inside the glove so every time they threw the ball back and forth, they subtley glanced at what they had to say next.
This is very, very creative and the students love it. It's also rewarding to see some of the interpretations and how they are performed.
That's just my two cents.
It never ceases to amaze me how much students can memorize. Our "Much Ado" last summer was comparable to the Branagh film in terms of what was cut and what was left in. In fact, we kept in a scene that was taken out of the film (in Hero's bedroom right before the wedding, dialogue primarily between Margaret and Beatrice). So my cast memorized roughly the same amount that those actors did for the film, and that professional actors do for Shakespeare Festivals around the country every year.
People would ask me, "Well, you can't possibly be doing the whole play. I mean, they're just kids!" I would politely say, "Well, no, I did take out one scene between Margaret and Benedick that I didn't feel was necessary, and it had too much innuendo for us. And I trimmed some of the really long speeches, but other than that, it's a full-length play. It's comparable in length to the Branagh film." They would just look at me in disbelief.
I would encourage anyone attempting a Shakespeare play to believe in your students to be able to handle the language. Their brains are far more ready to memorize than they will be later, as I know personally as I'm trying to memorize the Agincourt speech for an acting class I'm taking. Whew...I think 25 lines is a lot to memorize, but my Benedick last year memorized close to 250! Don't dumb down the language - help them through it - I think you'll be amazed with what they can do!
I have never put on a full production of Shakespeare (yet) but I would agree that it is amazing what students can do if you give them sufficient encouragement! One thing I did do in giving my Grade 12 students a section of Macbeth to act out was allow them to have a separate Macbeth to perform his soliloquys. Having a "public" and "private" Macbeth really worked out well and not only cut down the amount of lines that the characters had to learn but challenged the students in terms of how they were going to stage this. Excellent results!
One way I solved the problem of roles was to have different actors for different acts. I had three kids play Romeo, three play Juliet and so on. Although I worried that it would confuse the audience, we had them wear the same color and it worked ok.
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