Patrick Spottiswoode outlines how the Globe Theatre in London is continuing a long tradition in adapting Shakespeare’s plays for the young.

Image of children in a Globe Educationworkshop
Muse of Fire, Globe Education’s immersive family theatre experience. Director: Harper Ray.

Alex Harvey-Brown

Sam Wanamaker, the founder of Shakespeare’s Globe, believed passionately that Shakespeare should be available to all, including children. He set up a Children’s Cinema in Southwark in the 1970s and helped establish Globe Education in 1989, eight years before the Globe opened. The first Globe was, after all, a theatre that attracted crowds, and a theatre in which Shakespeare dramatised printed stories and histories to make them available to a much wider audience. Our work with families and with the young seeks to fulfil Sam and Shakespeare’s wish to democratise the arts.

Globe Education has begun to explore ways of engaging young children and their families in informal introductions to Shakespeare and the theatre with programmes at the Globe, on the road and online.

There is inevitably a hint of Bowdler when sharing Titus Andronicus with six to nine year olds

There is a long tradition of adapting Shakespeare’s plays into stories that can be introduced to the young. The nineteenth century Reverend Bowdler has been the most mocked for cutting out swearwords and the bawdy material in his Shakespeare editions – so notorious that ‘bowdlerism’ and ‘bowdlerised’ have become accepted critical terms. It is easy to attack his prudishness but his motive of introducing the young to Shakespeare should not be dismissed out of hand.

We launched Story Days for families in 2013. In the 70-minute interactive performances, Shakespeare’s stories are retold by expert storytellers with a blend of modern, improvised and original text. While the obvious play candidates might appear to be A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth, the approach has enabled us to introduce families to King Lear, The Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and even Titus Andronicus. They sell extremely well, with previous attendees booking tickets for the next session before we have even confirmed the choice of play. Yes, there is inevitably a hint of Bowdler when sharing Titus Andronicus with six to nine year olds, but the stories work upon and engage the imaginary forces of adults and children alike.

We recommend the sessions to families with children aged six and over, but we often see much younger faces accompanying their older siblings. Story Days are also portable which allows us to take them to other cultural organisations, festivals and into hospitals.

Muse of Fire, another production for children and young people, was launched in 2013 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the burning down of the first Globe. It is more costly and complex to mount but has proved incredibly popular and successful, winning three Family Arts Festival Awards. The immersive, promenade performance has been devised and produced in-house, with the support of creatives from Punchdrunk, the Little Angel puppet theatre and the award-winning sound artist Melanie Wilson. Hidden areas of the Globe site are transformed into a magical forest, an overflow archive, a hermit’s tent, all of whose inhabitants have stories to tell, loosely based around five of Shakespeare’s plays.

Researching other Shakespeare websites, we realised that there was little on offer about Shakespeare for children online. Our neighbours at Tate Modern had produced a brilliant and imaginative site Tate Kids. Could we create a Shakespeare’s Globe equivalent that was interactive? This is what we now offer:

  • The Globe Playground is an online home where young people and their families can discover more about Shakespeare, his works and his world through a host of interactive games and activities.
  • Exploring Shakespeare is an interactive ‘touchable’ film designed specifically for young users and their families. The film follows two boys who sneak off from a guided tour to explore the backstage of the Globe.
  • Staging It is aimed at a slightly older audience and allows everyone to direct their own virtual scene in the Globe Theatre. Children can select their own interpretations of different filmed performances of famous Shakespearean duologues, before their own storyboard is compiled into a finished film, complete with a director’s credit.

Finally, in February and March 2015, we will be inviting families to free Saturday matinees of Othello, our flagship production created especially for young people in the Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank series. Every state secondary school in London will be offered free tickets. For many, young and old alike, this will be their first experience of a live Shakespeare production. Special free online resources will throw added light on the play and production.

Patrick Spottiswoode is Director of Globe Education.

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