Shakes DIY: Making Shakespeare Cool

Why don’t kids like Shakespeare?
Probably because their main exposure to it is sitting in class, cold-reading it in front of their friends and stumbling over every other word. (“Cold-reading” is a theatre term that means, “to read aloud for the first time.” Professional actors are cowed by cold-reading Shakespeare.) They don’t know what it means, they just know that everyone’s giggling because they’re Lady Macbeth and have to say “damn.” They see pictures on the cover of these books of people who look nothing like them, doing things they’ve never done.

Ah yes- I wear this all the time.

If I had a nickel for every time I see this…

So this play is about a girl WITH GIANT SHOULDERS and a mask…?

So how do we, at Urban Impact Shakes, make Shakespeare relevant, approachable, and, dare I say it, fun?

How about you learn from our mistakes!

Our first year of Shakes, we did Romeo and Juliet, set in the 1930’s. It was tremendously successful. Nobody even thought Shakespeare could be performed without pumpkin pants and pointy hats! They were awed.

pointy hats   pumpkin pants

“Great!” we thought. “Let’s take our next concept out of history!” So the second year, we did The Tempest set in Post-WWII Siberia. Although the staging, costumes, and especially acting was better, it was… less successful. Now that the students knew we could do Shakespeare without pumpkin pants, they were not awed by our new concept. Despite the 10-foot-tall sprite on stilts and glow wire magic guns.


After The Tempest, we had a decline in enrollment, and only two new students. Uh-oh! Something must have gone wrong. Little did they know, Julius Caesar would be when we got it right. Why? We based our concept on something flashy, exciting, and way too hot to be cool. We invented something we called, “Rome-punk,” like steam punk but with Roman-era influences. Our set was deconstructed and in the round (so the audience surrounded us on all sides), our fights were more dances than fights, we involved the students (who, by now, were capable actors) in the creation of our movement. The costumes were based on runways in Milan. In short, we hit the jackpot.

Julius Caesar poster 3 AWC

We decided to take the theories behind what made Caesar so successful and implement them into Much Ado About Nothing, and here’s what we came up with:

1) Choose a concept that is interesting and current. For Much Ado, we did it in a neo-folk style. (like Mumford and Sons)

2) Involve your students in the creation of the show and ask them to contribute their unique gifts. We had a brilliant student musician in our group, so we asked her (and helped her) to write and perform music, which we taught to our students, who performed it live during the show. We spent hours workshopping the songs to make them work.

3) No age makeup. We have a rule in our shows now that the oldest person on stage is the oldest person in that world. Parent/child relationships are played out and understood, but age is suggested in costuming, mannerisms, and interaction, not black lines and grey hair.

4) Act alongside your students, or get semi-professionals to join in. The students will rise to their level. They’ll see the way Shakespeare is supposed to be portrayed. We had two post-grads and one college student in Caesar (told you enrollment was down!) and one post-grad in Much Ado.

5) Get professional posters. Really helpful if you can afford it. Your photo shoot will be one of your first activities together and it sets the tone for all your rehearsals as well as casts a vision so the kids can see what the final show will be like.

6) Let your kids be who they are. Our kids are urban kids. We don’t try to get them to put on British accents. Yes, they’re expected to speak clearly. No, they’re not expected to be suburban kids. When our Prince left his earrings in, we told him to keep them in. Every night.

Last year's production of Much Ado


What concept is rolling around in your mind? What are your kids good at? Will pumpkin pants ever make a comeback? We can only hope.



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