When we produced our first Shakespeare play more than ten years ago, we did it for ourselves — for the educational benefit of the kids involved. Over time, both our company and our audience have grown significantly, to the extent that we can now claim to have a real influence on the performing arts community of San Jose and its neighboring cities. Today, a typical Youth Shakespeare production has a cast of 30, a technical crew of about 10, at least 20 parent volunteers, and an audience of 500 or more over the course of 5 performances.
One of the most interesting aspects of this community is that it represents a cross-section of ages and backgrounds. One of our defining principles is to encourage children of various ages to work together on productions that are in turn presented to people of all ages. We welcome new cast members into the group at the age of 8, and many of our members stay on until they leave for college. We welcome whole families to come and see our shows, offering free tickets to those who are 7 or younger, and we keep our young audience in mind when we are rehearsing. For example, we try to make the storyline very clear, and we tend to tackle the more accessible plays in the Shakespeare canon, avoiding some of the more difficult histories and tragedies.
Part of our mission as a company is to develop new generations of cast, crew, and audience members who are interested in reading, performing, and watching Shakespeare's plays. Each new production brings new participants and new audience members into this community, and the entertainment and education benefits are continuously handed down.
About The Cast
Our young actors and actresses range in age from 8 to 21. Some have had no other theatre experience, and some have acted with other local groups or in school productions. A few members of the company have been with us from the beginning, gradually building confidence and skill in a long series of very difficult plays. Many of our original members come from homeschooling families but over time, the group has grown into a well-balanced mixture of private, public, and homeschool-educated young people from all over the Bay Area, with families driving into rehearsals from Pacifica, San Juan Bautista, Fremont, Livermore, and all points in between.
We always produce the entire play and cut very little of the text. We do not rewrite any of Shakespeare's language. Instead, we meet the plays "head on" and do what we can to understand the gist of each scene as we act it out and refine it. This approach, in itself, is a challenge to the cast, but it is one that they can meet. Too many academic and performing arts programs start with the assumption that classic works of literature and drama are unapproachable in their original form. This style of teaching deprives students of the ingredients (the dramatic structure and the poetry) that make these works worth studying in the first place. Our young company studies each play on its own terms. Moreover, our productions have a real ensemble atmosphere because everyone knows one another. Our company offers a trusting and supportive environment in which children of various ages not only work together successfully but thrive socially and creatively.
The cast for most productions includes one or more college students, and most cast members don't leave the group until they "age out." When they do leave, our alumni go into many different fields of study—it is not our goal to turn out budding actors and actresses. On the other hand, the level of performance that they achieve with the company is very high, and if they are interested in higher education in dramatic art, they have an excellent foundation on which to build.
Parents and Children Volunteering
What does it take to put on a Shakespeare play with a group of young people? Aside from a director, a venue, an audience, and the other predictable stuff, what it really takes is a big commitment from the kids themselves and their parents. It's not really about money, or theatre experience, or even the acting; it's really about a group of families pooling their resources to support the production.
Here is a list of just some of the key areas that have to be covered for every show, with a few notes on who does the work in each case:
- Costume design and construction: the parents make a lot of our costumes from scratch, and a few of the older children help with the sewing
- Stage construction: we have our own reusable portable stage built and extended as needed for each show by two or three highly motivated parents, ably assisted by their own children
- Stage management: this essential function is covered exclusively by teenage crew members; one of the stage managers attends all of the rehearsals and fills out the "cue book" for the show, putting in almost as many hours as the director
- Music: almost all of our music is based on traditional compositions and is played live by members of the cast, in costume
- Choreography: we have a few young choreographers in our midst who take full responsibility for coming up with movement ideas and running rehearsals with the dancers
- Lighting design, hanging lights, and programming the light board: young crew members focus lights and run the show by themselves, under the careful supervision of our technical director and one or two adult volunteers
And the list goes on: set design, scene painting, program design, artwork, web site design and maintenance, publicity, snack bar management, ushering, diction work, makeup design, props, videotaping, photography, etc. All of this stuff gets done, and it gets done by the parents and siblings of the young people up on stage. We don't hire any help, and we have a lot of fun in the process. On the day a show ends, all of the families pitch in to strike the set, clean up the theatre and dressing rooms, and restore the lighting to its default plot. After that, we all go out for pizza. About a week later, we all get together again for a blow-out cast party that goes on for hours. It's a blast!