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'This Wide and Universal Theatre...Wherein We Play.'

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Washington--William Shakespeare, who had three children himself, probably would have approved.

For three days in late May, clad in tights, kilts, and facsimiles of Lady Macbeth's gown, several hundred 4th through 6th graders took over the stage of the Elizabethan Theatre adjacent to the Folger Shakespeare Library for the third annual Children's Shakespeare Festival.

Using the props that would fit in one "roadbox," each group of students spent 20 minutes performing an excerpt from the Shakespeare play that they had rehearsed--most for several months--under the direction of their teacher.

The festival, now in its third year, is sponsored by the library's volunteer docents, who give tours and perform many other tasks in the well-known Washington library. (Administered by the trustees of Amherst College, it is the largest and most comprehensive institution of its kind in this country, housing rare books, manuscripts, and artifacts associated with the history of Shakespearean theater.) The facility is also associated with the Folger Theatre Group, a resident company that performs plays by Shakespeare.

This year, for the first time, the children who took part in the festival gave their performances on the stage of the Elizabethan Theatre located at the library. The plays ranged from Hamlet to A Midsummer Night's Dream. One enterprising class performed shorter excerpts from three plays.

Some students used texts from Albert Cullum's Shake Hands with Shakespeare, a selection of scenes that have been arranged for children but remain relatively faithful to the originals. Other children, some of whom had participated in previous years, bravely tackled the originals. Macbeth is a big favorite, as is Taming of the Shrew.

Introduction to Shakespeare

The students and teachers involved report enjoying the process of rehearsing and staging part of a Shakespeare play. But important educational goals are built into the festival as well, according to Peggy O'Brien, education coordinator for the library and one of several staff members who help coordinate the event.

In the process of preparing their scene, students are introduced to the life, works, and times of Shakespeare. Many teachers incorporate the play into a unit that includes material on the culture and history of Elizabethan England, Ms. O'Brien said.

The elementary-school students, many of whom previously knew little or nothing of Shakespeare, like the plays and apparently do not find them hopelessly old-fashioned. Ms. O'Brien described the time she told a group of third graders the story of Macbeth, then read them parts of the play. Who, she asked the students, do you suppose wrote this? "I don't know," one boy replied. "Maybe the guy who wrote 'Star Wars'?''

The children also seem less daunted by the poet's language than are many adults. "They're at an age when they're learning lots of new words anyway," Ms. O'Brien said. "This is one more way of learning them." The students' ignorance gives them an advantage over older students, too, she said: "They're not old enough to know that they're not supposed to like it. There are not a lot of negative things to work off.''

The experience of producing Shakespeare is usually a novelty for teachers, too. "In elementary school, teachers aren't required to teach Shakespeare," said Julia Kampelman, who also helped coordinate the festival. "So anyone who even tries has a lot of energy and a lot of gumption."

The library holds a workshop--this year it was in February--for teachers, some of whom subsequently bring their classes to the festival. The teachers' response to the workshops has been "overwhelming," Ms. Kampelman said.

"Shakespeare wrote those plays to be performed, not to be read. That's how you ought to get them first," Ms. O'Brien said. "He wrote them to pack the Globe Theatre. When you're in the classroom, it's easy to lose your perspective on this."--S.W.

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