Looking for Shakespeare: the ‘time travel’ workshop

At the beginning of August I had once more the opportunity to do a theatre/English workshop with a group of 6-12 year olds within my university’s holiday programme targeted at the children of staff members. This time, the group consisted of 15 kids (10 girls, 5 boys), their English proficiency ranging from year 1 students understanding and speaking only isolated words up to year 5 or possibly even year 6 students who could understand a lot and were able to form sentences on their own and also at least 2 German/English bilingual children. However, in order to not exclude the little ones we did much of the workshop in German, integrating just smaller games or episodes of English now and then.

Having done a similar workshop in the Easter holiday programme, I was now trying to pay regard to some points which I then thought were in need of improvement and I think it’s good that I changed a few things:

  • less English because the smaller kids felt a bit left out the last time
  • a short break after about half of the time
  • involve the student supervisors in advance, tell them about my plans and ask for their support
  • get an additional theatre person as a co-trainer

Of course there was still a bit of chaos at times, and not every child will have understood everything and occasionally fights threatened to break out because some kids didn’t want to cooperate with certain others (there was a “boys vs. girls problem” we did not have last time) but the supervisors were quite strict here, so at least in one exercise boys had to work with girls – much to the boys’ annoyance. It’s possible that this time some of the older kids thought themselves already too old to believe in our story-telling/role-playing but luckily most of the time they played along, so I think all in all it was successful.

In case anyone is looking for inspiration for an English/history workshop about Shakespeare’s time and theatre for younger kids (this could well be adapted for a less heterogeneous groups than we had, it could also be done completely in one language, I guess, if the focus is on history), here’s an overview of the workshop:

My assistant (let’s just call her that) and I arrived in costume, dressed in “mad scientist” fashion and introduced ourselves as people from a time-travel agency that had been hired to take them on a trip to Shakespeare’s time and that now we would have to prepare them for this, so they would be able to get along in Elizabethan England for a while.

Biography-quiz:

I handed out three short biographies (in German) describing the lives of famous men (Columbus, Martin Luther, Shakespeare) to the kids to read aloud. They had to guess who these people were and also, as they had identifed all three, if they lived before or after William Shakespeare. They guessed all three but thought that Martin Luther lived after Shakespeare… Elaborating on the description of Shakespeare (went to a big city to work, liked to tell stories and write them down, met the queen, family lived somewhere else), I asked and explained a bit about London, the Globe Theatre, and Queen Elizabeth, showing suitable pictures for each topic.

Shakespeare tableaux:

Drawing inspiration from a workshop by Tremaine Pavlovski at the 2013 IDEA conference, I explained the next task: we would have to familiarise ourselves a bit more with Shakespeare’s life and with acting. For this we were going to do tableaux (still-images/living statues, whatever you want to call it), showing scenes from Shakespeare’s life. The topics were assigned by me (and heavily inspired by the ones we had done in the IDEA workshop), showing Shakespeare working with his actors, coming home to his family and also meeting the queen. (This was the exercise were girl-boy-cooperation was required and only very reluctantly achieved.) Finally, all four groups, supervised by at least one adult each (thanks to the three supervisors and my assistant!) “performed” their still-images and got applause from the rest of the group.

I had been thinking of also including some crafting activity (making simple, Renaissance style hats of paper) that the kids could have worn during the “time travel” – to make them less conspicuous to the Elizabethans they might meet ;-) – but time was running short, so we skipped this.

The next, after we’d covered a bit of historical context, was to make them aware of some possibly useful English vocabulary. After all, so we told them, we would go to a country and period where people would speak only English!

Did they have this in Shakespeare’s time?

I had brought a basket full of everyday objects and paper labels with the English words for all them. Every child had to draw one object from the (covered) basket – the kids named the object in English (as far as they could, but this worked well, as we had a few bilingual kids in the group) and I asked them if these things already existed in Shakespeare’s time and to sort them (labelled) into two heaps on the floor: already existent in Shakespeare’s time or not. If not, I asked them what people would have used instead (e.g. we had a candle and a flashlight, or a telephone and a letter, so the explanations were fairly easy to find).

Finally, to set the theme for the actual time travel, I told them that an actor had given me a letter, asking the time-travellers to please convey this to Mr. Shakespeare. My original idea had been to have the letter in German and to let the kids translate but as the supervisors thought this would be too difficult, I prepared it in English and the older kids translated it into German. In the letter the actor (I wanted them to know this word in English) introduced himself, told Shakespeare he loved his plays (another word I wanted them to know) and asked if Mr. Shakespeare could write a play on…. here, of course purely accidentally, the letter had been smudged. So we asked the kids for their ideas – and we got nearly everything that might be contained in a good Shakespeare play: life, death, romance, boys, and revenge…

To finish off the preparation part we played a round of “Runaround” (in German) with some relatively easy questions focusing on the Elizabethan era. And indeed – nearly all chose always the right field… Okay, maybe the ones who were unsure just followed their group instinct ;-)

Time travel!

After a small reward for everyone, it was now time for a break and indeed the kids were getting a bit fidgety already and I was worrying if they’d be doing ok for the rest of the workshop. Though some would have liked to continue running around, after 10 minutes everyone was lined up again, to start the time-travel. To introduce a bit more mystery, we used a darkened corridor and unofficial staircase in the building and climbed up to the first floor, where I’d set up the “time machine” (just a square of chairs) and I told them to sit down and concentrate. Now I had to change really quickly into Elizabethan costume and for this matter I’d recorded a sound collage as a time-travel “countdown”, ending with a few notes of “Greensleeves”. While I was still changing, my assistant entered, already in Elizabethan costume, sweeping the floor, singing Greensleeves herself. Her task was to “discover” the kids and wonder who they were – in English! For she was now playing an Elizabethan woman working as a cleaning lady at the Globe Theatre. (My intention had been also to project a big picture of the Globe’s interior to the wall, which would have been nice, but for some reason it didn’t work.) Anyhow, I entered next, playing a maid of the queen, sent to make sure that the theatre was ready for her majesty’s visit that evening (this bit was inspired by Susan Cooper’s King of Shadows). We talked in English for a bit, hoping that the older kids would understand and that the supervisors would translate for the little ones. Anne and Nell (our characters) discussed how apparently all the actors (and Shakespeare) had disappeared and that instead a group of weirdly dressed kids had arrived in the theatre. We asked the kids where they came from and (and here we weren’t sure if it would work) they indeed answered that they came from Germany (and from the future!). So we played a bit of question and answer in English and then (for the sake of the younger children), one of us remembered a “magic amulet” that would let the wearer understand all languages. Once we had our amulets, we could switch back to German… We established that apparently the actors had disappeared (maybe changed places with the kids?) and that we needed the kids’ help to finish the play that was scheduled for tonight. After all, the queen was planning to attend! Unfortunately, we didn’t have a clue what the play was going to be about. However… as the actors had apparently left quite suddenly, there were a number of props lying around “on stage” and I “discovered” a props list (in English of course) which the kids were given to read aloud and find the corresponding objects. Based on these objects, we asked them to guess what kind of play this could have been. Even though the objects were not particularly specific (some roses, a basket, a letter, a golden frog, some cups, a crown…) they first suggested actual Shakespeare plays! I must say I was surprised. After we’d told them that this could not be any of the plays they knew, they (especially the older girls) suggested a number of more or less complex stories involving all the objects. (Maybe, if I do this again, I have to reduce the number?) I should have made notes because my intention was to take the best ideas and form one new story, but somehow I forgot and had to improvise. Since we were a bit short of time, I now assigned scenes telling this newly invented story and the kids were cast as actors. Of course, costumes had to be involved and once they were all dressed, we rehearsed the scenes with me as a narrator. The idea was that in their roles they could only speak English or use mime because their audience would not speak any German. This worked quite ok actually, the older girls were up to the task and the others mostly just mimed. After we’d done it once, I was ready to stop (because they had to go to lunch in time) but the kids wanted to “perform” it once properly, so we did one more and then finished saying that the queen would surely be pleased. If we’d had more time, we could have made more of this idea – actually bringing in someone to act as the queen… But due to lunchtime the kids now had to hurry back to their time machine and go back to the 21st century…