June 10 started with Shakespeare. At 8:45 in the morning. In a middle school cafeteria. It was the kind of performance that the bard would either find horrifying or hilarious. I’ll bank on the latter.
Every year the entire 8th grade class at JFK Middle School performs A Midsummer’s Night Dream, with a cast of 220, give or take a dozen. There are three English teachers, and their classes each perform a third of the play. The roles are shared among the students. One kid may play Theseus for an entire act, while the four lovers’ roles are played in shifts. At one point it was a revolving door of lovers, helpfully wearing tie-dyed t-shirts with their character’s names printed on the front. It helps if you know the plot of the play in advance, because it’s very easy to get lost. Sometimes Puck is played by one kid, sometimes the fairies get to share his lines. In one scene the rude mechanicals all wore sports jerseys, in another, tutus. The teachers, as directors, throw gender around willy-nilly. Demetrius played by a girl, Titania played by a boy in over the top drag. Some of these boys may have been wildly uncomfortable with the crossdressing and gender swapping, but you wouldn’t know it to watch. From the point of view of the audience they were unfazed and took on their roles with sangfroid and enthusiasm.
In spite of the silliness, it holds together. The kids have a blast. And if they inadvertently skip an entire scene, well, we all know that Bottom gets a donkey head and Titania falls in love with him, so really how important is Act 3, Scene 1?
My kid played Puck for a whopping seven minutes. Wearing a flowered shirt, a vest I bought on my honeymoon in London, a pink tutu, and fairy wings, he danced, and bounced and schemed, blew glitter at the lovers to send them to sleep, and clutched adoringly at Oberon (his pal Dan, in a glittery back tank and harem pants). He may have spoken the lines a little fast, but his always surprising deep voice carried well. Not so far removed from Puck in personality, he became the character. This is a kid who has gone through life as if there is always an audience around him—this time it was actually on a stage. It will forever be one of the most delicious seven-minute periods of my life.
In the end, it didn’t matter so much that these kids stretched Shakespeare to his limits. They had a weeks-long immersion in this wonderful play. They experienced firsthand how funny, beautiful, and joyful Shakespeare’s plays can be, and why we’re still performing them centuries later. They sharpened their memorization skills. They got mad props from their peers, teachers, and parents. Most importantly, they stepped out of their very narrow teenage comfort zones, at least for a morning.