Telling Shakespeare’s Story: How to Avoid the Boring

As I may have mentioned before, my daughter (and I, let’s be honest) is a Shakespeare groupie. She has requested to do a deep dive into Shakespeare next year. Overachiever that she is (love her, *kiss kiss*), she wanted to read all the plays. I think I’ve talked her down off that particular ledge. We’ll read as many plays as we can comfortably manage, though.

Here’s the big question: How does a homeschooler do Shakespeare in a way that avoids the dreaded Boring Shakespeare Experience? That was my Shakespeare experience, anyway. I recall reading Macbeth twice (I switched classes mid-year, so I got to do Macbeth twice). I recall reading it. I recall analyzing the theme of blood in the play. I recall watching this twice (I think I still have scars from that viewing experience.  Lady Macbeth is quite the sex pot in this production). But I recall no warm fuzzy memories of my Shakespeare study.

Shakespeare can be boring. He tends to drag. Hamlet is a yawny experience, even when seen live (I can testify to that). So why does my daughter love it?

Well, she acted it first. Her primary experience with Shakespeare comes from being part of a troupe. Here’s a shot of the outdoor venue where the high school kids get their Shakespeare on:

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It’s delightful. Olivia is looking forward to doing a tragedy or comedy this summer. She loves the acting. She loves the mentors. She loves the kids. Acting Shakespeare is a great gateway to the plays.

The Folger Shakespeare Library agrees. We plan to use their resources that help kids learn Shakespeare by acting. We’ll either use these lessons at home or through our local co-op Shakespeare class happening this year. Who knew there was an engaging way to do Shakespeare? Honestly, I never remember acting out a single scene in high school. I might have enjoyed the experience more if I had been given a scene, told to cut it down to X number of lines, and then been charged to act it out in front of the class. That’s the Folger approach.

Shakespeare Set Free #3

Okay, so we’ll act out some Shakespeare, both in a troupe and through a co-op class. We’ll also act out some of the funny Shakespeare (if we have time) in that class. Olivia and I love The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Abridged. This comic mash up brings all of Shakespeare’s plays into one hilarious production. See it if you can. We just saw this company’s latest production at the Folger, William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play. Hilarious. I think Shakespeare spoofs add a modern dimension to the plays that makes a reading of the actual plays all the richer.

And let’s not forget musicals, of course. I’ve talked about Olivia’s passion for musicals before. Something Rotten is touring this year. We’re going to see it. Here’s the synopsis from our local theater:

Something Rotten! is Broadway’s big, fat hit! (New York Post). Set in 1595, this hilarious smash tells the story of Nick and Nigel Bottom, two brothers who are desperate to write a hit play. When a local soothsayer foretells that the future of theatre involves singing, dancing and acting at the same time, Nick and Nigel set out to write the world’s very first MUSICAL! With its heart on its ruffled sleeve and sequins in its soul, Something Rotten! is The Producers +The Book of Mormon x The Drowsy Chaperone. Squared! (New York Magazine).

What’s not to love about that? We watched a few of the songs online and we know we’re going to love every Elizabethan moment of that show.  As I said, watching the spoofing Shakespeare makes the actual reading of the plays all the merrier.

Acting, reading, and watching. That’s our Shakespeare plan. Oh, and we plan to round things off with a Brave Writer class or two, of course. Hamlet is being offered this spring. I believe Macbeth is on tap for next spring. We just caught Chesapeake Shakespeare’s production of Macbeth, so I think we’ll enjoy another visit with the Thane of Cawdor next year.

Do you have any plans to interact with the Bard? How do you plan to spice things up to avoid the Boring Shakespeare Experience? I did a Periscope on this topic, too. Here it is!

“No, Mom! I do it!”

That quote was one of my son’s favorite phrases when he was a toddler. He usually wanted me to stop helping him get dressed, climb a ladder, or get a game out. He sometimes wanted me to stop singing along to a song on the radio; in that case, the phrase would change to “No, Mom! She do it!” He never appreciated my dulcet tones, I guess. 😉

I have noticed over the years that I do have a tendency to insert myself too much into my kids’ lives. I don’t have much patience, so it’s difficult for me to watch young fingers struggle to cut out a shape without just grabbing the scissors and saying, “Here. Let me help.” Some parents are great at letting their kids figure it out, watching kids struggle in the kitchen as they place the flour in the measuring cup, spilling half of it on the floor in the process. I aim to be more like those moms all the time. Sometimes, I even succeed.

This idea of Parental Help came home to me after a weekend spent at a Destination Imagination competition. Here’s a lovely photo of my daughter’s improvisation team. I’m their Team Manager.

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Destination Imagination has a strict No Interference policy for teams. Here’s an example of how the No Interference rule woks (from the New Hampshire DI site):

If someone not on the team, including a Team Manager, builds or creates an item using the team’s idea, they may not use that item. The team must start over and build it themselves in their own way. If someone not on the team, such as a Team Manager or a parent, tells the team how to do something, whether they are building something new or just practicing their Presentation, the team must politely tell that person to let them do it themselves.

I’m sure you can imagine how hard it is for adults to zip their lips and let the kids find a solution for themselves. I’ve heard of Team Managers who had to take a walk around the building to avoid telling a team that a particular method of assembling expensive materials was not only not going to work, it was going to destroy said expensive materials. No Interference.

What if we parents exhibited a bit more of the “zip your lip” approach to our kids and their projects? What would the school’s science fair look like if parents really didn’t do 95% of the projects for kids? What would the robotics competition look like if there were no “Daddybots” (the ones built by dads on a team of young beginners who obviously lack the skills necessary to create these work-of-art machines)? What would happen if we – gasp – let our kids make their own costumes for History Day?

I suspect that if we embraced the No Interference rule with our kids, there would be a lot of train wreck projects showing up in schools. Ha. But I think if we became Lip Zippers, we would go a long way towards minimizing that achievement gap everyone’s always so worried about. Our kids don’t need more papers and tougher tests. They need to inhabit the world of “Let’s figure this thing out.”

Writing down your kids’ stories: One mom’s approach

This picture was taken many years ago, when my daughter was active on the storytelling circuit.

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Storytellers travel from festival to festival crafting a bridge of communication to recreate the vision held in their brains within yours. One storyteller told me, “I have a picture in my brain. It’s so vivid. I want you to see it the way I see it.” Then he told the story.

You can see how this idea is key to writing stories, as well. As a writer, I have a vision of a world or an experience I want to share with you, my reader. I use all the tricks I know to make this image vivid and lively, drawing you into my brain so you can see it as I do. Those are the books we readers love to read the most, right?

Olivia was an oral storyteller. The stories my daughter told were sometimes folktales (The Barking Mouse and Martina the Beautiful Cockroach were two favorites), but Olivia mostly told personal tales. In the storytelling world, a personal tale is based on the teller’s past experiences. It can range from completely truthful to downright tall tale-ish. I already told the story on this blog of how I wrote the first story Olivia told. Today I’d like to help you explore ways you can capture the experiences of your own children in writing.

I thought about capturing my own stories in writing so that my kids would have something to read about my childhood. I have struggled writing down my own story since it seems necessary to start at the beginning and work my way forward. I tried this once. I got to the elementary school part of my timeline and stopped. It was exhausting trying to remember everything in order, and I noticed my memories from back then were fuzzy at best. My sentences ran along the lines of: “I remember switching to a new Kindergarten sometime mid-year. They were having a cool snack that day. It might have been ice cream.” These images are disconnected and not vivid. I decided that capturing moments of times in my kids’ lives was easier somehow. So I started writing their stories, instead.

So how do you capture a moment in your child’s life in a story? Here is one path to writing a captivating tale:

  1. Write a list of moments.
  2. Think of a theme.
  3. Tell the story.
  4. Write the opening with a compelling hook.
  5. Loop back to your opening hook in the closing.

1. Write a list of moments.

Are you like me? Do you have trouble calling up memories from your childhood or that of your child? Here’s one thing I did when I needed a new theme for a story for Olivia to tell: I sent out a request to friends on social media to help me remember some of the crazy stuff that had happened to Olivia. Any memory at all. The time she got an ice cream cone and the dog ate it. The time she left half her overnight items at a sleepover. Any little memory has the potential for story greatness. My friends and family came through!

For one story, I ended up choosing to tell about the time Olivia banged her nose on her knee when trying out a trampoline for the first time. It was sad at the time, but hilarious when we thought back on the events of the day. Great fodder for a story!

2. Think of a theme.

With a list of memories, you can ponder which ones you’d like to turn into a story. In the storytelling world, a personal story has an overarching theme. A theme is some sort of lesson or deeper truth that the listener can hear and agree with, nodding his head enthusiastically and feeling a connection  with the teller. The overarching theme is a nice way to begin framing a tale.

When I thought about Olivia’s time on the trampoline, I imagined the middle-aged listeners who would hear the story and I tried to think what they might be interested in hearing. I knew they would have fun traveling down their own memory lanes as they heard a story of kid high jinks.  It’s always thrilling to remember being a kid. But I wanted something else for them in this story. I realized the theme of this story wasn’t “Kids will do silly things sometimes.” It was really about me. I was one of those overprotective mothers who didn’t want her kids on trampolines. At all. The theme of this story quickly became “Overprotective parents can let go of their worry. Sometimes.”

3. Write the story.

I milked my overprotective nature for all it was worth as I wrote this story. I called on every memory of picking child-safe dishware, installing protective car seats, and worrying over scary news reports about the dangers of ______ (fill in the blank with your worst parental fear).

Moms today have lots of fodder for a story about being overprotective, don’t we? We are under such pressure to micromanage our kids’ lives. A recent article about parents being visited by Child Protective Services for letting their kids walk to the park alone illustrates my point. Storyteller Andy Offut Irwin speaks of growing up as a “free-range child.” In this day and age, we’re expected never to let our kids roam free. No free-range chicks in our yard. We need to build those coops sturdy and tall with lots of wire fencing. The pressure is intense!

So I told the story of the time my daughter begged me for a chance to jump on a friend’s trampoline. I finally agreed. And wouldn’t you know it? She tried to do a flip on the trampoline and gave herself a bloody nose. Typical. Ha. I filled in the details with all the reluctance I felt and all the cajoling my daughter had to do to get me to agree. It wasn’t all true, but the general theme was spot on. I was an overprotective mother, and I had to find a way to get over it. This trampoline experience helped me do that!

4. Write the opening with a compelling hook.

If you’d like to make your story even more exciting, perhaps worthy of sharing at your next family reunion, talent show, or even a storytelling gig, then you can spice it up with a compelling opening. Openings for stories are hard. “Once upon a time” may work for fairy tales, but it doesn’t usually grab the listener’s attention (Well, perhaps if you say something like, “Once upon a time, I died.” That would certainly make your listener sit up and take notice.) For my audience – the middle-aged listeners at a typical storytelling event – I tried to pull on our common experience from childhood in the 50s, 60s, and 70s when coming up with an opening to draw listeners in. In stories over the years I have used references from television; old-fashioned video, board  and outdoor games; movies; memories from dining out or shopping; and more. What I try to do with listeners is give them a flashback to childhood in their time and then contrast it with my kids’ childhood. The contrast is often funny and sometimes poignant.

For my trampoline story, I could have referred to the hands-off way our parents let us play as kids (“Be back home by sundown! Bye!”). I could have referenced the relative lameness of toys back then (“Kids today have trampolines and airsoft guns. We had a jump rope and the ring with a lemon attached to it you could swing around on your ankle!”)

[Note: Remember that one? It was called the Lemon Twist. Here’s a trip down memory lane for you.]

For this story, I chose to evoke a familiar scene: the opening credits from Little House on the Prairie. The way the girls in pigtails careen down a steep slope while their parents look on fondly from the wagon stood in sharp contrast to my parenting style. I would imagine my child cracking her skull in three places on that grassy hill of doom and I would tell her to “Slow down!” With this opening, I let listeners remember that iconic scene and then I brought them into the theme of my story. Opening hook. Kabam.

5. Loop back to your opening hook in the closing.

One way to close your child’s story is to wrap back around to the opening hook. I might have chosen to relate the time in Little House when the “Great Gambini” tried a magic trick and ended up dying in the burning box. Sometimes it pays to be overprotective, eh?  That would have cemented my theme quite well, although it might have been a tad depressing for the audience. Tying back to an opening gives a story a rounded out feeling.  In the end, for the trampoline story, I went a different way. Listen below to hear what I did!

I hope you all will think about telling some of your children’s stories. They make wonderful keepsakes and it’s an easy way to dip your toe into the writing pool. We all love telling stories about our kids, right?

Here’s the trampoline story for those who’d like to hear it.: