On a rainy summer afternoon, when most children are camped out in front of the television playing Nintendo or watching videos, the Young Shakespeare Players are rehearsing for a full-length performance of Hamlet at the Anshe Emet School on Pine Grove. As the infamous prince of Denmark, Rosanna Orfield, a pretty blond 15-year-old, sinks to the floor, and Reina Hardy, a diminutive Horatio, kneels beside her. "Now cracks a noble heart," Reina says, her voice expanding with melancholy. "Goodnight, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to rest."
In their fourth summer in Chicago, the Young Shakespeare Players are learning to perform Shakespeare's plays verbatim: no shortcuts, no editing of the text due to their ages, which range from 7 to 17, and absolutely no complaining about the hard work involved. And the discipline seems to work: they display poise, dedication, and talent, contradicting the myth that Shakespeare is too sophisticated for children. "Anything that is worthwhile is attainable by young people if there is a climate created for them in which they can achieve," says their director, Richard DiPrima.
It was on this premise that DiPrima created the Young Shakespeare Players program ten years ago in Madison, Wisconsin, and started the Chicago chapter upon moving here four years ago. DiPrima runs summer Shakespeare programs both here and in Madison, and he offers different workshops during the school year. He also runs his own consulting business, and is completing work for his doctorate in clinical psychology. But working with the Shakespeare kids is his favorite job.
Enrollment in the Young Shakespeare Players is arranged on a first-come, first-in basis; there are no auditions, which DiPrima considers damaging to a child's self-esteem. Everyone is guaranteed a speaking part; the final decisions on various parts are determined by group vote. Due to the high girl-to-boy ratio, girls are often cast in male parts. The leading roles are usually double cast, allowing the kids an opportunity to share the major characters.
The program runs almost exclusively on its own fuel. Performances are free, and there are no government grants or funding; contributions and small-merchant advertising in play programs keep it alive. A small tuition is charged, but scholarships are offered to children not able to afford it.
To familiarize the cast with their roles, DiPrima makes up audiotapes for each character in which he recites the character's lines and then explains in detail the meaning of the words, the context in which they are spoken, how the language differs from modern English, and the relationship of the characters to each other. A lead role such as Hamlet involves up to ten hours of tapes, which the child will listen to several times. Although there are differences in the way each child deals with the challenge of learning the lines, DiPrima maintains that there is no "glossing over of the language." "These aren't Equity actors," he says. "Nonetheless . . . they are absolutely set on doing those lines and redoing them until they understand them."
DiPrima is very concerned with imparting to the kids a strong sense of the language. "We have this marvelous tool--the English language--and we're seeing this alarming decline in literacy. Kids are being handed the classics in abridged forms. They're being shortchanged and I am trying to change that. Once they've been involved with the beauty of Shakespeare's language, it's like a fire has been lit and it can't be quenched. There is nothing like this happening in education today."
At this rainy day Hamlet rehearsal, the kids appear to be having great fun. Corina Delman and Rosanna Orfield, who share the role of Hamlet, are taking turns doing the last scene of the play. They move about the stage confidently, brandishing fake swords, and it's easy to imagine them in full costume, speaking their lines eloquently, gesturing widely, suddenly transformed into Shakespeare's ageless children. DiPrima sits in a chair, leaning forward, watching the actresses intently.
"I've never doubted that the kids can do this," DiPrima says. "There are very few ideas that they cannot understand on some meaningful level if those ideas are presented well and thoughtfully. It's not unique to Shakespeare."
The young actors and actresses seem equally enthusiastic. "Richard's great," says Corina Delman intensely. "After doing this for the last four summers, I can read anything by Shakespeare."
"He treats us as equals," Rosanna Orfield agrees. "From acting in Shakespeare's plays, I am used to the way [Shakespeare] substitutes long phrases for one noun. Everything has at least five different meanings and you learn to figure that out."
Of course, there are varying degrees to which children can portray the psychological makeup of adult characters. DiPrima points out that children tend to be less inhibited than adults. "I think that kids are a little closer to the emotional part of this; they have fewer veneers of civilization." Group discussions are often held to discuss the emotional complexities of the characters, and by performance time the kids have achieved an understanding of what makes their characters tick. "It's hard to say what Hamlet is really like," Corina says perceptively. "We're seeing him in a state of emotional upheaval. What I do see about him is that he thinks too much and too passionately and then he laughs at himself for his indecisiveness."
Acutely aware of adult skepticism, DiPrima and his kids derive a certain satisfaction in undermining it. Corina gleefully relates one small victory over adult doubt: "My English teacher said we weren't advanced enough to read Shakespeare. So I gave her a brochure and now she says she is going to come to the show." Adults are usually surprised at the expertise exhibited onstage, DiPrima says. "People have come up to us after a performance and told us: 'I'd seen this play before but never really understood it until now.'" To DiPrima, this is the greatest compliment of all.
By the time of the actual performance, the Young Shakespeare Players have immersed themselves in Shakespeare for almost six weeks. They have taken responsibility for themselves, they've stretched their imaginations, they've gained knowledge and self-esteem. "They will never lose this experience," says DiPrima reverently. "This means that any time in the future when the world says they can't, they know that maybe they have a chance if they try hard enough."
The rehearsal is drawing to a finish and parents are trickling into the auditorium, collecting their various offspring. The children gather in small groups, giggling and talking, brightly colored knapsacks slung over their shoulders. There is an occasional scream of delight as an impromptu game of tag breaks out. The Young Shakespeare Players are just being kids right now, but in each of them is a small piece of permanence and beauty called Shakespeare.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.