My name is Freddy Carnes. I have been a working theatre artist in Austin, TX for many years. I joined Theatre Action Project in 2005 and have so many wonderful memories of teaching in the East Austin schools. I remember my start; doing world theatre with the children, learning about different countries: Kenya, Mexico, Russia, ect.
When it came to teach about England I hesitated, unsure if there would be an interest in Shakespeare plays. It didn’t take long for my fears to subside.
In telling the story of “Hamlet”, I knew I had the student’s interest by the time Polonius was stabbed by Hamlet. After the story we had a discussion about what character started all the violence that led to the ending of the story. Of course, Claudius seemed like the obvious villain.
We discussed why a father (who was already dead) would ask his own son to avenge his death by killing his brother. A pretty lively discussion ensued as the children debated what Hamlet should do.
The discussion got even deeper when they discovered that Hamlet was similar to the story of Disney’s “The Lion King”. Suddenly the students were discussing a “classic” tragedy as if they were talking about the newest video game. I saw the genius of Shakespeare. His themes of romance, revenge, madness, ect. are universal and continue to be accessible for all people.
There was one girl who was way too “cool” to participate at first. Most of the girls wanted to play Ophelia, but this girl, (when she finally geared up to participate) was set on being Hamlet. She learned the “To be, or not to be” speech and wanted to wear the Hamlet costume. This led to a discussion of gender. I told them that at the time of Shakespeare, women were not allowed on stage. I told them that the original Juliet, Ophelia, Lady Macbeth, Desdemona and Gertrude were played by men. After their initial “Yuck!” we decided that as an actor you are just playing a role.
The girl blossomed. After “Hamlet” I told them the story of “Romeo and Juliet” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” By the end of the program the children were doing speeches from these plays, remembering details from the stories and still eager for more.
The success of Shakespeare led me to try Greek Mythology.
I had begun studying “The Odyssey” on my own, not intending to use it in my classes, but decided to try. Once again, there was a girl at another elementary school that taught me the impact of these stories. I began by telling the story of Odysseus from his battles at the Trojan War to his return to Ithaka. Of course, they were intrigued by the war and the Trojan Horse, but they really got interested when they heard about all of his adventures. Different stories resonated with different children. When we began to act out the scenes some of the boys wanted to be warriors with swords, and some wanted to play Odysseus or the Cyclops. When the girls found out that the Enchantresses were evil, but beautiful they wanted to play Circe, Calypso, or the Sirens.
I had a lot of problems with one girl in particular. She acted out and seemed entirely disinterested in “The Odyssey.” I went on with teaching the story. I brought in props, puppets and set pieces but it wasn’t until I started bringing in the fabric and dresses for the Enchantresses that she became interested. She was the first to try them on and then offered to play Cirece. There was a total transformation. Her attitude completely changed and she truly became the character. She ended up playing Circe in our big showcase for other elementary schools in Austin.
I am continuing to expand my programming but I will always remember the girl who was Hamlet and the girl who was Circe.
Author: Freddy Carnes, TAP Artistic Associate and Teaching Artist