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'Thus With A High-Five, I Die': Teaching Shakespeare To Young Kids In Pittsburgh

Deanna Garcia
90.5 WESA
Nia, 8, colors her Juliet "costume" - designing costumes for characters is one of the week's activities

Shakespeare is a staple in high school and collegiate classrooms, but the Bard isn’t always taught in elementary school.

Pittsburgh’s Classic Theater wants to change that, introducing kids to Shakespeare through week-long summer camps for children as young as 7.

At a camp at the Sarah Heinz House in late July, the kids could choose between swimming, arts and crafts and outdoor activities, but about 15 chose Shakespeare instead.

The instructors, Cassidy Adkins and Karen Baum, are teaching Romeo and Juliet and a bit about Shakespeare himself. Baum said that since the kids are so young, instructors have to be innovative.

“A lot of games and a lot of art,” she said.

Students trace outlines of their bodies and draw costumes; write one-line warnings to characters in the play and act them out; and scenesplay the “freeze” game, in which a teacher tells them to do something like “walk like you’re Juliet leaving the party,” yells freeze at certain times, and the kids stop in place.

Baum said some of the scenes they use have to be modified.

“Instead of saying they kiss, we’ll have them high-five and they get a big kick out of, ‘Thus with a high-five, I die,’" said Baum. “And they also love playing Juliet or Romeo whenever they’re taking the poison, and it looks like a crime scene because we have all these little kids showing us what it would look like.”

Credit Deanna Garcia / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Otto with his costume for Romeo, his favorite character, though he said he also likes Tybalt and Mercutio.

The camp's goal is to get kids comfortable with Shakespeare, but also to teach them that the themes in his plays are timeless and relatable: violence, family, fighting and love.

The program's executive director, Alan Stanford, said young people are open to learning. When the words are spoken rather than read, they get it.

“One of the great misunderstandings with Shakespeare is that people tend to teach it as literature,” said Stanford. “It is not literature. It is drama. These words are not written to be read, they’re written to be spoken. There is a world of difference between a lump of text and hearing words.”

Still, Stanford said, they do need to make it fun for smaller Shakespeare scholars.

“We don’t push them too hard, and we don’t do too much,” he said, “but we just address it so that when next they come to Shakespeare, in high school or whatever, they’ll already know where they are going.”

The kids seemed to be having a good time: 8-year-old Otto said he’s learned a lot of facts about Shakespeare, like that “he wrote sonnets in 10 syllables exactly,” referring to iambic pentameter. He said his favorite character in Romeo and Juliet is the title gentleman, “but I do like Tybault and Mercutio, too.”

The first camp has wrapped up, but another begins Monday, Aug. 14, at the Thelma Lovett YMCA in the Hill District.