How’s this for a challenge: present three Shakespeare classics—a comedy, a tragedy, and a romance—in an hour. With four actors. For an audience ranging from preschoolers to adults.
That’s what Vancouver actor, director, and theatre educator Mike Stack is doing with Shakespearean Rhapsody, his first script for young audiences, which opens in a Carousel Theatre production on March 1. Adapted from Lois Burdett’s Shakespeare Can Be Fun series of books that retell the Bard’s stories in a format suitable for elementary-school kids, Shakespearean Rhapsody will give us A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and The Tempest—all in a dizzying 60 minutes.
When I ask Stack, on the phone from his East Vancouver home, if the Elizabethan playwright is a hard sell for kids, he responds, “I find Shakespeare is a harder sell to their parents. There’s so many preconceived notions about Shakespeare being difficult or boring—or perhaps it was not offered to us in the right way or young enough.”
Stack is working to change that, by connecting kids with Shakespeare. For nearly two decades, he ran the Young Shakespeareans program at Bard on the Beach, leading workshops for participants aged 8 to 18; he’s worked in schools; and he continues to offer monthlong workshops through a couple of home learners’ networks in the Lower Mainland. “The only reason I love Shakespeare as much as I do is because of children,” he says.
In Stack’s experience, the kids get Shakespeare in a way their parents might not. “They’re just taken by the worlds that are created,” he observes. “Especially when you think of things like A Midsummer Night’s Dream: you know, I’ve seen that play enough times, but there is so much imagination in it. When you think of looking at it through a child’s eyes, it’s like an astounding pop-up book.”
Burdett’s books are written in rhyming couplets, an element that Stack has retained for his script—but he’s also incorporated more of Shakespeare’s actual text, and slightly reworked lines that he jokingly calls “Stackspeare”. The result is a playful mishmash of idioms. When Romeo realizes he’s in love with Juliet, for example, he says, “When I think of her, my whole body quakes/But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?”
Adding to the fun is the fact that the nearly three dozen characters in Shakespearean Rhapsody are played by just four actors. “When I do Shakespeare with children, they just want to play whoever,” Stack says, “so trading things around and switching things is not at all odd or confusing to them.” In this production, he notes, the actors “literally have to be able to change character while turning around.”
Stack appreciates the appetite and creativity that kids—and he’s worked with grades as young as kindergarten—bring to Shakespeare. “If you put a few people of that age together in a room and just let them have at it, they will create story and character and play,” he notes. “And I think that’s at the essence of what Shakespearean Rhapsody is: Shakespeare can be fun, and it is all about play.”
Shakespearean Rhapsody is at the Waterfront Theatre March 1 to 29.