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Presenting Shakespeare for audiences with 'short attention spans'

Published August 18, 2014 5:47 pm

Stage • Forget debates about to trim or not to trim: Utah Children's Theatre aims to make classic plays accessible, and fun, for young audiences — and their parents.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Forget catering to highbrow or lowbrow tastes. Producers at the Utah Children's Theatre are aiming the company's annual Shakespeare festival to the rest of us — that is, kids and adults with short attention spans.

That caveat is branded in the festival's name. The company takes seriously the notion of inviting its audiences to enjoy Shakespeare's timeless stories, albeit streamlined for a digital-addled age.

Kids, no matter how much they love their digital screens, are more engaged when they watch live shows, says James Parker, the company's executive director. "Pop culture gives us a lot of fluff," Parker says. "In theater, you have to stretch your imagination."

Forget endless academic debates about to trim or not to trim the original plays. "Our philosophy is whatever engages the audience and helps them start to understand Shakespeare," says festival director Matthew Windham, a company alum now studying set design at the University of Utah.

Windham oversees the adult actors working on the festival's annual mashup, "Digestible Shakespeare" — billed as a primer "for those with Shakespeare anxiety." The show is a romp through a handful of plays, mixing the Bard's poetry with contemporary jokes. Last year's mashup, "Breakfast with Shakespeare," went on tour to play at Eve and the Utah Arts Festival. The show employed rubber chickens and plastic fish for swords, which allowed the change from Shakespeare's "Thus with a kiss, I die" to "Thus with a fish, I die."

"We're not trying to create a definitive take on any piece of Shakespeare or any Shakespearean scene," says Windham of "Digestible Shakespeare." "We're more interested in awakening interest. We say something in Shakespearean language and transfer it into plain English, or we say something and make a joke on it. As long as we get some Shakespeare in there, we're pretty happy."

Now in its third year, the festival has been expanded from two weekends to six. This year's lineup also includes a production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which is edited for length but sticks to the classic story, although it does include an additional explanatory prologue to introduce the characters. In addition, festival programming includes a Youthstage show of "The Merry Wives of Windsor" with a cast of 23 youngsters, most of whom have been working on their Shakespearean acting techniques through the company's summer classes.

Other festival offerings include family Shakespeare workshops and a free green show on Saturdays between performances. "Sometimes Shakespeare feels too difficult for kids, but it's really not," says Jana Cox, head of the company's Youthstage programs.

After all, kids love language play, says Michael Bahr, education director at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. "There's no difference between Dr. Seuss and William Shakespeare in the mind of a child," says Bahr, underscoring the rhymes, iambic pentameter and nonsense-loaded language in each.

Bahr heralds Utah Children's Theatre's programming, which he says draws upon the model of how Shakespeare ran his own company, creating parts for young actors as well as more experienced players.

Utah kids are likely to develop an interest in Shakespeare because of the state's abundant crop of school productions. In fact, Bahr believes there are more grade-school productions per capita in Utah than in other states, and he'd like to find funding to build an interactive map to prove his theory.

It's in our state's bloodline, Bahr says, referring to the Mormon pioneers who crossed the plains carrying treasured editions of Shakespeare plays along with the King James Bible. "Shakespeare is like ballet to a dancer," he says. "It's in an actor's DNA."

Producers at the Utah Children's Theatre have ambitious dreams about expanding the festival, but for now remain focused on their mission of capturing the attention of their younger audience members. Windham is inspired by the interests of his nephews, now 5 and 9: "I want them to hear the name 'Shakespeare' and think, 'That's something special. That's something that people who are interesting really like.' "

ellenf@sltrib.com

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'Thus with a fish, I die'

P Utah Children's Theatre's third annual Shakespeare Festival for Kids & Adults with Short Attention Spans plays on weekends through Sept. 27. Shows include a production of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," performed by adults for young audiences, and a mashup show, "Digestible Shakespeare." There are also a Youthstage production of "The Merry Wives of Windsor," family workshops and a green show.

Where • Utah Children's Theatre, 3605 S. State St., South Salt Lake

Tickets • Most shows are $8; family passes are $18; at uctheatre.org or 801-532-6000

Showtimes • uctheatre.org