Not every child wants to spend summer break studying the works of William Shakespeare. But those who do often surprise Julie Osborne-Watts.
“Shockingly, [it is] a lot of different kids,” said Osborne-Watts, education and outreach manager for Shakespeare Dallas, which draws youths ages 2-12 from varied backgrounds and interests to participate each year in its Camp Shakespeare program.
Since 2015, the program has used some of The Bard’s most famous plays to teach theater arts to students. About 50 students are expected to attend this year’s pair of day-camp sessions, scheduled June 19-30 and July 10-14 at the Covenant School of Dallas.
While some students who attend are aspiring thespians, others “have never seen a play in their life, have never acted in a play,” Osborne-Watts said.
Many would-be campers learn about Camp Shakespeare when adult actors from Shakespeare Dallas’ touring productions perform at area schools as part of the nonprofit organization’s educational programming.
“We talk to the kids all the time about how The Lion King is based on Hamlet, and how in tons of Disney movies you see references to Shakespeare,” she said. “We try to … let them know that Shakespeare really has impacted the society that we live in and the world that we live in.”
That includes language. While adults can be intimidated by Shakespeare’s words, Osborne-Watts said children tend not to balk at them. “They haven’t learned to fear the language, so to them it’s not a scary thing. They really embrace the language. It’s easy for them to pick up and learn.”
This summer, students in grades 2-6 will participate in a program called All the World’s a Stage. They’ll learn acting basics, including vocal and improvisation skills, while portraying characters from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
In July, as part of the Midsummer Madness camp, the young children and tweens will receive instruction in the art of stage combat when they suit up in fencing gear and battle each other using foils.
“It’s a really fun experience for the kids,” Osborne-Watts said, adding that stage combat is present throughout Shakespeare’s plays. “It’s a great way for those who want to continue on in performing to get a start with that.”
Students in grades 7-12 enrolled in The Play’s the Thing camp will participate in an in-depth study of Twelfth Night as they pare down the five-act piece to just one act. “It definitely is a big undertaking,” Osborne-Watts said.
Twelfth Night was selected because it touches on the hot topic of bullying, she said. “We wanted to talk about that and focus on that. It’s also a fun comedy, so that’s another way to engage students through laughter.”
What Dreams May Come camp is designed for tweens and teens who want to pursue stage acting in high school and college productions, or possibly as a profession.
Auditioning for theater productions “is not an easy skill,” she said. “It’s definitely a learned skill, and it’s very different than acting, so we try to help them out and give them some hands-on skills and tools that they can use.”
Each Camp Shakespeare session concludes with a performance for the players’ parents at Samuell Grand Amphitheater.
Besides providing an unusual summertime activity, the camp may also prove academically beneficial, Osborne-Watts said. “We try to tell parents when you give students artistic opportunities … the test scores get better, grades get better.”
Acting can also help boost kids’ self-confidence while encouraging them to think creatively and reinforcing the importance of teamwork.
Last summer, she said, “We had several students who, on the first day, were afraid to open their mouths. The idea of getting on a stage in front of other people was terrifying to them. By the end they were saying, ‘I want to be an actor when I grow up.’”