First Person Singular

(Benjamin C Tankersley)
Sunday, September 28, 2008

My introduction to Shakespeare? Boooring. Boooring. Eleven years old. "Henry the Fourth." Part One. Who knows, it could have been Part Two. Sat in a classroom with 35 other kids, taking our turns reading lines. Right down the row. Never moved out of our seats. Miss Pike was the teacher, and she looked exactly like her name sounded: pinched-in glasses, thin as a rail, very tall, very serious. It was her job to make sure that we were never, ever to be interested in Shakespeare. So now it's my job to get my revenge on her by making sure as many children as I can possibly come into contact with know him and love him.

It wasn't until I actually performed Shakespeare that I came back around. Because that's what you have to do: You have to play it. Now that I've seen the children do it, I wish I could go back and redo all the shows I did in my 20s, because I've learned so much more. They hear their own Shakespeare, and they question it. No one asks more questions than kids.

The best thing you can do is take them to the show. One little boy, 10 or 11, said to me after going that he'd like to do a monologue from "Hamlet," but not one of Hamlet's. He said, "After I heard King Claudius say those words, I really knew how he felt. I felt how he felt." When kids perform, it's so pure. They're not acting, they're being. They really are the duke or the lord or the fairy. They're not on a stage in a church during drama camp; they're in Verona or a castle or in the middle of a sword fight. We steer our kids away from all the complicated emotions into very narrow, insulated safe worlds. And then they get their hands on these stories where nothing is black and white, and they want more of it. We don't give our kids enough credit: They want to get in there and try to figure it out, see how it feels to be devious, betrayed, heartbroken, vengeful.

I want to get back into that world of pure imagination -- before you're worried about looking cool, before you've been middle-school-ized. I see it starting to happen with some of the older girls, who come in with their little purses and that middle-school bounce. They're playing a part. They're the ones acting.

Interview by Amanda Long

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