April is Shakespeare's month, of course. It is the month of the final production of the academic year by the Shakespeare Troupe at the Carlisle High School. This year's play is The Tempest, but over the preceding seven or eight months the Page to Stage class run by Sue Biondo-Hench has attacked the buffet table of almost any or all of Shakespeare's plays, nibbling here, feasting there, food fights, just desserts, you name it. Whistlestop Bookshop has been a strong supporter for many years, providing sonnets, finding supportive gifts, and buying advertising -- pretty much anything and beyond what Sue has requested or needed but was too shy to ask for.
Soon I will be making sure that the store has stock of every title recommended or required for summer reading in area schools. We get many Carlisle students here, of course, 6th to seniors, and we also have the pleasure of seeing a lot of Trinity High School and St. Patrick's School students as well (the open secret is that Antoinette Oliverio is an irresistible inspiration in getting kids to read). Some of these summer reading books are plays. On one hand I have Sue's Shakespeareans living intoxicated on plays, and on the other hand I have that pathetic expression of dread or terror on the faces of the summer students when they realize they are required to read a play over three months. Why?
What happened to the fun of reading plays? You the reader are the director, producer, actor, and special effects wizard. A play is not read by you; it is staged. It is the ultimate forgiving dress rehearsal: you do get to go back and get the lines right as soon as you realize where the scene is going or what hidden motivations made a particular character say this and not that at the crucial moment. The stage manager is magical and can bring about anything you imagine. No boring prosy rambles (be skeptical of overly controlling stage descriptions by playwrights), no death march through chapter after chapter of sequential plot development. Drama must be fast, efficient, breathtaking, heart-stopping (I almost wrote "heart-stomping"), pow!
Yet young people fear plays. They grow into adults who don't read plays, who don't realize every movie they see is a play, who have opinions about performances but not scripts. Local theaters scrounge for every dime, summer stock is mostly musical "revues," and any retail consultant will tell me that I am crazy to stock a drama section from Aeschylus to Ensler to Ibsen to Kushner to Stoppard to Wilson.
I was lucky. My father remembered radio shows of the 30s and 40s, and he shared his love of them with albums of Jack Benny, the Shadow, and so on. I remember in 5th grade, Miss Powell, Marshall Road Elementary, Vienna, Virginia, reading aloud in many parts a dramatization of H.G. Wells's Invisible Man that must have been a recycled radio play. I had seen the film with Claude Rains by then, but this was so cool, so immediate, so transformative. Higher grades, unfortunately, meant the death of the fun. Plays were dragged out, stretched and dried on racks of weeks of slow reading. Ida Forbis in Shakespeare, senior year at Carlisle High School (yes, a third of the year devoted to Shakespeare, radical then) restored my faith that formal education could do it, could carry the joy of plays, but she was an isolated genius. I have always read them on my own since grade school, a seemingly contradictory passion for what should be a shared "play."
So out of loyalty, out of gratitude for the countless hours of pleasure that plays have brought me in the quiet of my own perfectly appointed theater, I will look this summer for the hidden spark in the apprehensive student, and I will tell him or her that a misinformation campaign has been waged, that plays are fun to read, that they will be your friends for life. This literature is a gift to give away.