San Jose Youth Shakespeare is a theatre company for young people who are interested in performing in high-quality, full-length productions of Shakespeare’s plays. Ages of cast members range from 8 to 21. Our plays are not edited beyond what is standard in professional theatre.
Regardless of their age, our players are expected to work toward and maintain a high standard of performance. The group seeks to establish a strong sense of community that is shaped around a creative and intellectual interest in Shakespeare’s dramatic poetry. The company is run and sustained by the cast, production crew, and their families.
Our productions benefit audience members of all ages, especially the very young and their families who are experiencing Shakespeare’s language for the first time. We have found that young audience members are more readily accepting of the language when they see their peers performing it. Through this philosophy, we have formed a strong company and loyal audience, all of whom are developing a lifelong enjoyment of Shakespeare’s works.
We began as a group of mostly homeschooled kids who wanted to put on a play. As luck would have it, one of the dads happened to be a trained Shakespearean actor, and he thought it would be an interesting project. So, we pulled out some books, decided to try As You Like It, and San Jose Youth Shakespeare was born.
As You Like It was performed in April 2004, in a small gathering space in the cafeteria of a church. The cast of 17 young actors entertained an audience of about 240 over three performances. The high success of this production prompted us to produce four more comedies in 2005 and 2006. In December 2006, we even performed our own adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The following year, 2007, marked the first major turning point in Youth Shakespeare history. By now, we had moved on to performing in middle-school multi-purpose rooms, with a portable stage built by one of the dads and some simple scenery put together by several of the moms. In 2007, Youth Shakespeare tackled its first tragedy, Macbeth, a production that featured a painted canvas backdrop, a real lighting set, and choreographed fight scenes. We now had a standard to uphold, and we did so quite well with our following production of The Winter’s Tale, which involved our first choreographed dance sequences. In 2009, we moved into our first professional venue, the Theatre on San Pedro Square in downtown San Jose, where we performed Julius Caesar. The following year we moved into our current venue, the Historic Hoover Theatre, for our production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Youth Shakespeare plays always have been, and always will be, produced almost completely by the efforts of the kids involved. The addition of certain key members to our group has helped us go from searching the clearance racks at thrift stores for appropriate peasant blouses, to having students design and make some of our costumes from scratch. Similarly, under the supervision of experienced parents, students have helped to build set pieces and paint backdrops. Individual students are put in charge of the music, sound effects, choreography, and stage management. Our Technical Director, Chris Langland, assists the kids in learning to hang and focus lights and run the light board. Youth Shakespeare makes a point of putting the kids in the spotlight, or in some cases, behind the spotlight, and the parents are mostly on the periphery (after all, someone has to run the snack bar!) In order to make all of this possible, Youth Shakespeare accepts generous donations from various companies and individual contributors, having been officially recognized as a non-profit organization several years ago. The board of directors even includes one or two student representatives. Again, Youth Shakespeare is almost completely run by the kids.
The proceeds from generous donations from our sponsors go into a recently established Education Fund, a special account created in 2011 to offer more advanced experiences to the cast. Because of this Education Fund, Youth Shakespeare was able to host renowned actor Scott Handy from the Royal Shakespeare Company in April 2012 to help prepare the upcoming production of Twelfth Night. Looking back on refining the opening scene ofTwelfth Night a few days before we opened, Scott said it was the “most fulfilling moment of his career.” The Education Fund continues to make more opportunities like this possible for the young actors of the company.
Youth Shakespeare celebrated our tenth anniversary in 2013. In the space of ten years, it is remarkable to look back on how the company, and more importantly, the actors, have grown since the first production. As You Like It was produced on a minimal budget for a few families and friends. Now each play is performed in a professional theatre with sophisticated lighting and effects, and the company retains a following of audience members that have no connection with any of the actors. But beyond the technicalities and the overall quality of our productions, what is important and truly special about our group is the family-centered atmosphere. Most families have more than one child involved in the group in some way, and the parents are always actively involved as well. Some of our members have been with the group since the very first play, when they were 9 or 10 years old. Others only joined us last year. Still others have “aged out” of being a part of the action, although no one ever truly “ages out” of Youth Shakespeare. These alumni have taken San Jose Youth Shakespeare out into the real world with them, some of them coming back to help direct, videotape, or help behind the scenes during our productions. Be sure to check them out on our alumni page! It is not uncommon for one of our younger actors to stick with the group and climb the ladder to much more significant roles – the servants of today are the kings and queens of tomorrow. Stick around to watch this growth happen and see what new developments come our way!
– Mary F.