I write these words thirteen days after September 11, 2001. For the time being, that date has become as emblematic as B.C. and A.D. Before the 11th, I hesitated to write about writing because I’m basically an actor first, who has adapted—and had published—four of Shakespeare’s plays for children, 9 to 17.
The tragedy in New York took place five days before what were to be our final performances of my adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, starring…23 children. The director and I discussed canceling the two final performances as inappropriate for the time. But we ultimately decided there can’t be a more potent antidote to chaos and insanity than Shakespeare…and children. The show went on.
I adapt Shakespeare because I’m hopelessly in love with the language. And I wanted to share my love with my own children…with all children. So I put his vigorous language inside a story theatre frame with sassy, streetwise storytellers speaking in current idiom, filling in the blanks, commenting on the action, propelling the plot. I believed—have always believed—that children could get the plots and a huge chunk of that wildly vibrant, poetic language. And I was right. Fifth-graders are now quoting Lady Mac to each other on the playground.
So, on the final day of our Midsummer, five days after the tragedy, Puck’s words—”Lord, what fools these mortals be”—were shockingly current. The teens’ naive rebellion, Bottom’s innocent arrogance, Aegeus’ blustering vengeance—all seemed—in Shakespeare’s flawless wording—to remind us of our humanness and the imperfect fabric of our characters. Audience members said it was aloe to the week’s deep wounds. They could laugh legitimately for the first time since breathing had stopped the Tuesday before.
I’m old enough to have sat suspended through hours of TV coverage of the Kennedy assassination. Walter Cronkite’s words helped me and millions of Americans put definition on what seemed like a windless chasm. And the words of the wonderful writers in the New York Times magazine are pulling me forward through this latest cataclysm. T.S. Eliot said—was it in the Wasteland or The Four Quartets?—”We had the experience but missed the meaning…”
And that’s what writing seems to me now: circling the experience again and again until words can nail it—or nearly—a verbal approximation of my experience. To offer another. So they can see how I saw it. And by sharing Eliot’s “raid on the inarticulate,” we can find commonality.
Experience may be essentially non-verbal and to describe it in words may change the experience. But what else have we got? A billion shared descriptions, trying to get a bull’s-eye on experience may finally be—more than ever—what the world needs now.
HAMLET (Does Father Reeeeeeally Know Best?) – Drama/Comedy. By Nancy Linehan Charles. Based on the play by William Shakespeare.
Cast: 2m., 2w., 11 either gender. William Shakespeare was big on what can happen if you make the wrong move. And in his world that meant letting greed, jealousy, power and revenge get out of hand. He was always telling his audience, “Pick your friends well—watch whom you listen to.” Well, Hamlet listens to a ghost and makes his choices. The ghost tells him to get even with his uncle who, by the way, deserves it, and everybody ends up very dead. Three wise, sassy, irreverent storytellers relay this story and, believe it or not, make you laugh at the craziness of the human condition and gasp at the universality of human behavior—whether in 15th-century Denmark or 21st-century_________(pick any city on the planet!). There are big chunks of Shakespeare’s language juxtaposed to kid vernacular. It’s a rich soup served up to make Mr. Shakespeare part of the playground landscape. The Bard’s cautionary tale will send your audience home asking new questions about their contemporary world. Simple staging. Approximate running time: 50 minutes.
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (The Night They Missed the Forest for the Trees) By Nancy Linehan Charles Adapted from Shakespeare
Cast: 4m., 6w. (plus 9 either gender, extras as desired.) We’re in study hall where just about everyone is doing everything except studying for tomorrow’s test on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That is, until Jessie gets an idea. In this rollicking adaptation of Shakespeare’s play (wherein is examined the adolescent urges of just about everybody), teenagers, fairies, workers and royalty collide in a forest on a summer night and are bedazzled by a prankster. The fairy queen falls in love with an ass, the teens fall in and out (and in) love with each other, six well-meaning goofs stumble into their 15 minutes of fame, fairies weave magic to bring it all to a happy end as only Shakespeare can conjure the tapestry, and three streetwise storytellers pull the audience at breakneck speed toward the moon-drenched conclusion. Bare stage with props. Approximate running time: 60 minutes
MACBETH (A Kid’s Cautionary Tale Concerning Greed, Power, Mayhem and Other Current Events) By Nancy Linehan Charles adapted from the play by William Shakespeare
Cast: Cast: Cast is large and flexible, minimum of 15 actors, expandable. Some characters perfect for gender-blind casting. This dramatic adaptation, sprinkled with comedic commentary, is a winner for elementary, middle, and early high school. Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy is told within a lively and humorous story-theatre frame. Macbeth and his Lady covet the crown while witches, ghosts, kings and soldiers sweep across the landscape, carving out the battle between good and evil. Shakespeare characters speak the Bard’s words, while storytellers fill in plot and comment wryly on the escalating action. Macbeth to Witches: “How now, you secret, black and midnight hags.” Storyteller to audience: “He sure knows how to talk to girls.” The storytellers’ caution at play’s end: “Watch out what you ask for…and be careful who you hang out with.” Bare stage with props.
OTHELLO (Tracking the Green-eyed Monster) By Nancy Linehan Charles Adapted from Shakespeare
Cast: Cast: 8 – 11 + extras as desired. By the author of “Macbeth: a Kid’s Cautionary Tale…” this play is written using the story-theatre format with sassy storytellers narrating from the sidelines, keeping the plot on track, firing off wry comments on the action and encouraging the audience to participate. In this tale of intrigue and treachery, we see the tragic consequences of gossip, slander, peer pressure and trust in the wrong person. Set against the raucous military campaign in Cyprus, “Othello” charts the cunning power of evil as it poisons innocence. A mesmerizing tale of the good guy who takes oh-such-a-wrong turn. The moral? Pick your friends carefully and dump false pride in the nearest receptacle. Flexible set.
ROMEO AND JULIET (You-Know-I-Really-Love-You-But-My-Father-Really-Hates-You Blues) Adapted by Nancy Linehan Charles From William Shakespeare
Cast: 4m., 4w. (plus 21 either gender.) Teenagers. What are ya gonna do. They fall in love at the drop of a hat—always with the very person Mom and Dad can’t stand. And in the case of Romeo Montague and Juliette Capulet, their families have hated each other for as long as anyone can remember. Except…no one actually remembers why. Grownups act that way sometimes, huh. This fast-paced adaptation of Shakespeare’s play tracks the star-crossed lovers and their cross-purposed families through the tumbling courtship to its tragic conclusion—storytellers firing off comments about premature marriages and the folly of old men at war. A perfect landscape for boisterous swordfights and gender-bending casting. Girls play boys with pointed reminders to the audience of all-male casting in Elizabethan times. Payback, say the storytellers. The audience is prodded to stop the tragedy at several points, but alas, too late. The conclusion? Violence is a stupid choice so mend your fences before you hit the parking lot. Bare stage with ladders and props. Approximate running time: 45 minutes.