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Pushing Boundaries: Inclusive Shakespeare for Teens

by Tara O’Boyle

I had a lightbulb moment while watching “King Lear” with Ian McKellan on PBS last year. “I am going to create a Shakespeare class for kids with special needs.” I said to myself, “The students are going to love it and it is going to be awesome.”

This was not out of the blue. The not-for-profit group that I co-founded, The Yellow Finch Project creates theatrical productions and in-school theater games classes for children with autism spectrum disorders and other communication issues. We were in our fourth year, and had created a broad variety of classes for all different age groups and levels of ability.

As we entered our fifth year and began brainstorming new classroom ideas, I wouldn’t let go of my dream of teaching Shakespeare to teens. I pitched the idea to anyone who would listen, with mixed results. The main concern voiced to me was that Shakespeare was heavy on language, specifically dense Elizabethan English, and language can be extremely challenging for teens with special needs. “Yes” I would reply (mostly to myself), “But what if it wasn’t? What if we could make it easy and fun and accessible?”

And so the first class began. I recruited Patty an amazing actress and fellow Yellow Fincher to test the waters with me. By trial and error, we adjusted and restructured and changed directions. Our first task was to teach the basic summary of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. I boiled the plot points down to one page and read it out loud. Crickets. By the time I got to the end, I had bored even myself. This was not the way to go.

Next we gave the class a task: create an original play similar to the royal wedding created by the Rude Mechanicals in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Suddenly, something sparked. Each student excitedly came up with an original character, lines, plot points…As a group they decided that the setting was a “Medieval haunted castle”. We had an evil Queen, a trapdoor operator, a wizard, a magician, and a humble villager who is turned into a rabbit.

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Once the students’ play was completely fleshed out, it dawned on us that they had created their own Shakespearean story! We had an angry Queen Margaret, seething at Richard III. We had the Porter from Macbeth, roused from sleep. We had Henry V inspiring the audience to transform the stage with him. We had Macbeth himself, reflecting on his poor life choices with “Tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow…” and lastly, we had a student who specifically requested Prospero, and conjured magical spells with his words. We even had a Shakespearean-style reveal in the last act “Don’t you recognize me? I’m your son!”

The students were proud of their hard work, and rightly so. We performed their original show in front of a small group and finished to accolades and applause. Each teen then read their hand-picked Shakespeare line (matched to their original play character) to a hushed room. It was a magical experience.

I learned many things with my first Shakespeare class. The most important lesson was to always raise the bar, and never underestimate what is possible. I was astounded at the creativity the students brought to their original play, and the sensitivity they put into Shakespeare’s words. I took away as much, if not more than the students did, and I was both humbled and energized for the next session.

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In the fall, we will request the same class and tackle an entire Shakespeare play for the duration of the school year. Some of it may be performed, most of it will not be. Our goal is to focus on the characters, feel the emotions of the scenes, and enjoy the magic of the text.  And it will be awesome.

“Be patient, for the world is broad and wide.” Romeo & Juliet. Act III, Scene iii

 

Tara O’Boyle is the Artistic Director of The Yellow Finch Project, which was created to enhance the lives of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other Social-Communication issues through dramatic arts. Tara and her fellow Yellow Finchers have created a variety of theater programs for the classroom, and launched their first theatrical production designed for an audience of special needs children, entitled, “Bookmarks: Step Into Spectacular Story Adventures” which is currently touring. A new theatrical production, “A Wisp of Air” will debut in 2017. The Yellow Finch Project is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization. More information can be found at www.yellowfinch.info

 

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