Theatre is universal. If it’s done well, there’s no reason that it shouldn’t be accessible on some level to everybody. Responsible adults tend to overthink this. We tend to think that there are some types of shows that might simply not appeal to very, very young kids. Given them the right attention, though, and even a little girl entering kindergarten next fall would have no trouble becoming remarkably engrossed in something as culturally obtuse as one of Shakespeare’s histories.
Door Shakespeare does a remarkably good job of drawing-in the tiniest theatergoers with a Saturday pre-show program called Shake It Up Saturdays. The intimate, little outdoor theatre in Bailey’s Harbor, has early 5:00 p.m. Saturday evening performances of Henry V throughout the summer. An early 5pm show is great for families, but a history like Henry V could seem like a really bad idea for really, really young kids. Door Shakespeare Managing Director Amy Ensign hosted a fun, little Shake It Up this past Saturday that engaged my two daughters before an afternoon with Shakespeare.
Ensign does an admirable job of bringing the complexities of an ancient play to life for kids prior to the show. The kids played with slips of paper assembling an ordered synopsis of and addressed various aspects of the play. (My daughters were particularly amused at the idea of France sending a king of England a chest full of tennis balls to mock him.)
The specifics of the tiny outdoor production were also of interest in the children's pre-show. It is explained to the kids that there are two opposing teams in the play: one in red and one in blue. Actors play counterparts on both teams based on cleverly simple Kim Instenes costuming. The basics of this are brought to the kids via props and costuming. They take turns choosing items, creating characters and improvising interactions between them.
The lessons from the free pre-show workshop are brought into the theatre. Henry V director/chorus presenter Matt Daniels is there onstage warming-up. The rest of the cast gradually filters-in to join him in warm-ups and pre-show socializing. Daniels has chosen to allow aspects of the backstage atmosphere to be visible onstage in the narration-heavy spirit of Shakespeare’s script. This semi-visible backstage is a great introduction for the younger theatergoers. My oldest daughter was given a checklist of classic lines from the play to listen for. The connection between script and spoken word seemed particularly interesting to her.
My oldest daughter is an easy match for this sort of show. It would be understandable that an eight-year-old would be able to dive into the reality of the drama as she is given something like a checklist to interact with. A little girl not quite in kindergarten could have been a bit more of a distance from the show, but Ensign did a great job of selling it to her. It was really fascinating to see my pre-kindergartner get into it. Little Isobel wore a flower crown from the concession stand with her tiny plush ocelot toy on one knee and her tiny plush bunny toy on the other. She was slack-jawed with wide, little blue eyes as she watched a Frenchman barter for his life with the British ensign named Pistol. Little Isobel might not have understood the specifics of what was going on, but she WAS totally engaged in so much of what was going on onstage. She may not have been totally engaged for the entire show, but an intimate outdoor performance of one of Shakespeare’s histories carried her attention MUCH more than one might have expected from a little girl entering kindergarten this fall.
It's a show meant for adults that has been made accessible for the whole family. Credit a talented Amy Ensign for drawing out some of that interest with an ambitious, little class. for ambitious, little theatergoers prior to the show every Saturday.
Door Shakespeare’s production of Henry V runs in rotation with The Merry Wives of Windsor through August 24th in Björklunden Lodge in Bailey’s Harbor in Door County, WI. Shake It Up Saturdays are free to attendees of the show every Saturday by reservation only. Shake It Up starts at 3:15. The show starts at 5 pm. For more information, visit Door Shakespeare online. My full review of both Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor appear in upcoming issues of The Shepherd-Express.