Ten summers ago, she invited twelve kids to her backyard because she had a big idea. Two of the children were hers, and two were mine; the rest were friends from church and youth group. As a home-schooling mom, Eleanor wanted to introduce her children and their friends to the words and world of William Shakespeare. Photocopied scripts and highlighters in hand, she assigned parts and introduced a basement full of young people to Two Gentlemen of Verona.
A couple of short weeks later, the kids put on a show. Tunics and rolled-up sweatpants served in place of authentic Elizabethan costuming. Parents and friends doused themselves in bug spray and assembled on lawn chairs and blankets to watch. Some packed a picnic supper to enjoy while the young thespians delivered their lines.
At times, the sound of a passing car or a neighbor’s lawnmower overwhelmed the voices of the young actors. Some in the audience strained to follow the dialog written and delivered in an unfamiliar meter. It was evident, however, that these performers understood every word they uttered. After witnessing all their hard work and seeing what these young actors were capable of doing, Eleanor regretted she had scheduled only a single performance.
My friend’s little project, launched from her big idea, has grown into a much anticipated summer event in the lives of a number of young people in my area. Since its inaugural summer Backyard Shakespeare (BYS) has been incorporated into a non-profit organization, though a fair amount of its expenses continue to flow out of Eleanor’s pocket. Over the past ten seasons, the company has produced fourteen different plays performed by sixteen separate casts. Friends from nine area churches and youth groups have gathered in Eleanor’s yard becoming, for a few short weeks, Puck and Portia, Lucentio and Lear.
Casts are taught two plays each summer and offer two performances of each production. As early as March of each year, young people begin lobbying Eleanor for choice roles in the upcoming summer’s productions. Through the years, costuming, make-up, set design, music, and special effects have grown increasingly sophisticated. A local art student designed a logo for the company while another former cast member contributed stunning art work for a program cover.
Not only do BYS participants learn plot lines and dialog, Eleanor has also created a number of other educational opportunities for young people within her back yard. She has provided internship experiences for university students, allowing them opportunities to teach, direct, and oversee production of entire plays. She awards high school credit for home school students who are willing to write character sketches and document their experiences.
Prior to each of this season’s performances, Eleanor asked former BYS cast members within the audience to stand. As I looked at them, a number of whom who have since graduated and moved on to college, I thought about the years my children participated as cast members. I remembered the summer my son wore football pads to bulk up as Charles the wrestler in As You Like It. I thought about the way he had matured into the role of Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Many of these BYS alumni had grown up together while reciting iambic pentameter in Eleanor’s backyard, forming deep friendships along the way and becoming a band of merry brothers.
I sat in my lawn chair on one sunny afternoon this summer, taking in the ebb and flow of the battle of Agincourt. I’ll admit I didn’t always follow the rhythm of the language and sometimes lost the plot line. But I saw joy on the faces of these young performers, the joy of having been invested in and loved well. Because ten summers ago my friend Eleanor had a big idea. She loves Shakespeare, and she loves these young people. And the play’s the thing she uses to show it.
A video interview of a former BYS cast member is posted on the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, UK website. Click here to watch, and enjoy a few cameo appearances of my son as Demetrius.
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