One of my favorite summer family rituals involves grabbing a bucket of Whole Foods buttermilk fried chicken, a bottle of chilled Chardonnay and a few beach chairs and heading down to the park production of Shakespeare on the Sound. This year’s Romeo and Juliet promises to be a fresh take on a classic love story. I recently sat down with Emily Bryan, Claire Kelly and Autumn Howard of Shakespeare on the Sound to discover what makes this production of R&J the perfect midsummer night’s dream.
Emily Bryan is the mother of two young children, a Darien native and a former Shakespeare professor. She now serves as the Director of Education for Shakespeare on the Sound.
Tell us about this year’s Romeo and Juliet. Joanna Settle, the Artistic Director, is staging a whole new take on R&J that cuts off the very beginning of the original play and instead starts with a dinner party. The friends around the table are arguing about who will get to play which part. Juliet is casting the reading of the play, but she decides that her ex-boyfriend will play Romeo, and her husband will play Lord Capulet. Her husband almost refuses to do it, because he’d rather play Romeo, of course. So it’s really a play within a play.
There’s a fair amount of music, which will work very well with the story. They do an amazing job of creating beautiful visuals set to music.
I was fascinated to learn that you hold an M.A. from The Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-Upon-Avon. What motivated you to choose to study Shakespeare in particular? I grew up going to see the American Shakespeare Theatre, which is really no longer in existence. That was the summer activity. A lot of what motivates me with Shakespeare on the Sound is the desire for my kids to have that experience and that’s what Claire and I think about when we think about the kids and the camps and the parks.
What’s your favorite? Right now, it’s Twelfth Night, but it has varied over time.
Emily teaching camp
You completed your dissertation on the lives of boy actors on the Shakespearean stage. What’s a surprising fact you discovered through your research? I went over to England several times and did a lot of archival research. For example, I traced the lives of choir boys who became actors. There was a kidnapping case of a boy who’d been stolen in the 1600s and forced to act; he was 14 and his nobleman father, Henry Clifton, brought this lawsuit to the queen’s court, and charged that these unscrupulous theatre managers had taken his son off the street. When the father went to the Blackfriars court to demand that his son be released, the theatre managers brought the boy out, gave him a script and demanded, “Say your lines or you will be whipped!” And the father was like, “What do you think you’re doing?” As it turns out, they had an order from the queen saying they could take any boy at anytime from anywhere and press them into working for their company. Clifton eventually got his son back, but there were many other cases like this one that I researched.
What does your position, Director of Education, entail? I spent the last 2 years working as the Managing Director, but now I’m stepping back a bit to be the Education Director. The former position was great, but it required too many nights out, etc. Now I support Claire’s efforts with the summer children’s camps and I’m responsible for raising funds to support the education program, so I do a fair amount of grant writing and asking people for money.
We’ve also designed an anti-bullying program for middle schools, which we call Speaking Daggers. We’ve piloted it in Norwalk this year with the Carver Center kids. The reception has been very positive. The idea behind Speaking Daggers and the camps is to give children the power to make choices and to realize that they can positively influence the outcome of a situation. Our feeling is that if you have the guts to stand up onstage with Shakespearean actors and rewrite a scene, then you can handle the class bully. To read the recent Greenwich Patch article on Speaking Daggers, click here.
Claire Kelly of New Canaan is the Director of Youth Programs for Shakespeare on the Sound and holds her M.A. in Educational Theatre from NYU. She has taught theater to students from pre-school through high school and is the mother of two young children.
Tell us about the Shakespeare on the Sound youth summer camps. The camps, which are held in Rowayton and Greenwich, are separated into two age groups: the Groundlings (5-8) and the Globe Players (9-14). We still have spaces open for our July camps; click here for more information or to register.
At our camps, every child gets to choose a Shakespearean character name. We use the names to create a world that doesn’t exist outside this room. We only refer to the children by their Shakespeare names, and we make t-shirts and nametags, which the kids decorate. The t-shirts become their costumes in the regular camp production. One little girl had such a wonderful time at camp last year, that she kept her nametag taped to the wall above her bed at home along with three other things she loved. She’s coming back to camp this year.
I think that, in school, kids are told “no” a lot, or told that there are only right or wrong answers. We really strive to create an environment that’s open, but not hectic. There are very firm boundaries, but there is so much freedom within those boundaries to be creative. We encourage the creative mind to flourish.
We’re focused on empowering kids to make their own choices. What do you think your character is feeling at the time? How would you stand if you felt that way? It’s a build from the beginning of a camp to where we arrive at the end of camp; it’s an arch that we create to help them make those decisions.
I like the camps to reflect what goes on onstage at the park production, so I derive the camp scripts from the park scripts. When the girl who plays Juliet at camp goes to see our production in the park, she will hear our Juliet say all the lines that she said. There’s a continuity that exists.
Sophie Howard, Autumn Howard’s ten year-old daughter and self-proclaimed “gleek,” had this to say about her experience: “My favorite piece was when the campers got to act out different deaths from Shakespeare’s plays, like Cleopatra’s death by asps or Lady Montague, who dies of grief. The kids know it is make believe and that is what is fun about it. Just like creating scenes from Romeo and Juliet for the final performance—the kids in your scene pull together and create something fun.”
Which leads us to our next question: How do you make Romeo and Juliet accessible for kids? I believe that a child of any age can get something from going to a real theatre production. I’m very opposed to “dumbing things down.” When we read the lines, the little kids know what they mean. They are so intuitive. They don’t view the language of Shakespeare as difficult, they just ask “oh, what does this word mean?” We teach them.
Many of us parents may not particularly understand Shakespeare or have had a bad experience with Shakespeare, which isn’t surprising because it’s not always taught well in schools. Shakespeare was never meant to be read; it was meant to be seen, to be performed. Our teachers are all artists, who view Shakespeare as an art, not a lecture. We are not product-driven; for us it is about the journey, not the destination. You’ll eventually reach the destination.
Will you be bringing your children to R&J? Yes! I’m bringing my 7 and 9 year-old. It’s a typical Joanna Settle production in that there’s a lot of music and it’s gorgeous. She’s really created something unusual.
As for the content, the first death doesn’t occur until the end of the first act, right before intermission. It’s bloody, but I tell people to tell their kids that it’s fake stage blood and that he’s pretending to be dead. In this particular production, it is a group of friends from college who, ever summer, read a play together. Even though characters “die,” you will see them again. At the end, Romeo, Juliet and Paris all get up after they “die.”
Definitely visit the pre-show education tent with your children. There will be 2 showings for the children—at 5:30 and 6:30pm—to explain what is going to happen in the production. There will be theatre games, races, coloring, word searches—something for every child ages 2-15.
What makes you so passionate about sharing your love of Shakespearean theatre with children? The humanity and how something that was written so long ago still makes sense today. It’s about the human condition. It’s good with regards to vocabulary and literacy, but it’s also about empowering students to express themselves and engage with others, which I think our society is starting to move away from. My passion and my whole entire life has been about theatre.
Autumn Howard, a mother of two, lives in Darien. She has her B.A. in Performing Arts from Oklahoma University and currently serves as the House Manager for Shakespeare on the Sound’s Romeo and Juliet.
What do you love about theatre? The actors. I like being around drama people. They’re creative and weird and fun and they know what you’re talking about…even if it’s strange and obscure to others.
You recently read lines for a play at the Darien Library. What was the play and how was that experience? I did a stage reading at the Darien Library. The one-act play, “Not Far from the Tree,” written by Margaret Lindsey and directed by Bridget Cusack. It was interesting and fun, but I was nervous at first. It ended up going really well. To read more about the Darien Library’s recent one-act readings, click here.
What does your position at Shakespeare on the Sound involve? It’s not always glamorous. It’s managing trash and potties and helping the patrons.
Emily says of Autumn, “She’s so good at handling the public. We get comments back after the performances about how nice and accommodating she is. We just need to get her more assistance!” Autumn does have junior and senior high school students who volunteer each night at the park, but she’s always happy to have more help.
What are your tips for having a good time at Shakespeare on the Sound?
- Pack a towel or chair and plan for a fun evening! Bring a bottle of wine, some snacks, or dinner, enough so everyone can stay occupied.
- The show starts at 7:30pm and lasts about 2 hours with an intermission. I would suggest arriving early. If you’re coming to Rowayton, be there by 4 p.m., especially if it’s a weekend night.
- Bring your kids to the pre-show education tent. The apprentices will explain the show and its plot and themes.
- Greenwich Harbor Arts is doing a live sculpture experience in the park. The artists will be creating sculpture June 28 – July 6, from 12-4 p.m., in Roger Sherman Baldwin Park in Greenwich. The art will be on display during the show. It is a natural pairing and a true celebration of the arts. I love the joy this group brings in with them.
What advice would you give to moms looking to get involved in local theatre? (Claire) To contact us at the Theatre or email email@example.com. We are always looking for people to help us out and, as a non-profit, we really benefit from people who might have 10 hours/week to give to us. Moms who possess a particular talent, but not a lot of time, please come help! We also have a wonderful Apprentice Company program for young adults ages 14-25.
(Emily) The Darien Library does a lot of readings and one-act plays, like the one Autumn performed. Also, the Darien Arts Center, with its Darien Players, usually has a production in the works. As for volunteering with Shakespeare on the Sound, sometimes it’s fun to arrange a “Girls Night Out”—set out your chairs in the front at 4, help out until show time, then sit down and relax with friends for the evening. We’d love the help!
Come see Shakespeare on the Sound! Roger Sherman Baldwin Park, 100 Arch St., Greenwich. Tuesday-Sunday, June 26-July 8 (with the exception of Mondays and July 4). Pinkney Park, 177 Rowayton Ave., Rowayton. Wednesday to Sunday, July 18-29 (no Mondays). 7:30 p.m. (Parks open at 4 p.m.) Free, but donations suggested, $20 adults, $10 students and seniors. Visitors bring their own seating. Reserved seats are available — $50 with an advance reservation. 203-299-1300, www.shakespeareonthesound.org.