Summer Camp in the Catskills Teaches Shakespeare to Kids (The Final Word Opinion Column)
The play’s the thing: The works of Shakespeare energize campers in the Catskills
Illustration by Chris Reed
Outside, January’s early dark falls with a freezing rain. The logs burning in the hearth are necessary, and I pull as close as I can without lighting my sweater on fire. Then I reach for one of the free calendars saved from the mail (World Wildlife Fund, Humane Society, Defenders of All-That-Was-Once-Natural-and-Soon-Is-to-Be-No-More) to begin charting summer.
Not my summer — that still exists only as hopeful scrawls over July weekends noting motorcycle rallies I want to attend and may never get to — but my child’s. It is so complex, and must be mapped so far in advance, that I need a separate flowchart for it. God help me if I schedule Farm Camp during the best week of Wayfinders, or town camp when Seewackamano is full of his friends. This is my midsummer madness, in the frozen heart of winter.
The centerpiece of the summer camp lineup, and possibly of our whole life here, is Shakespeare camp. For years now, we have been in thrall to a periodic magic: the child’s production of plays over four hundred years old, written countless galaxies from the iWorld that is all these children really know. Together, on an outdoor stage in the Catskills dubbed the Little Globe, a group of youngsters offers up the truest proof that great literature can live, its meaning as immutable as granite, forever.
For two weeks, the actors immerse themselves in Old English, in character and ritual and historic detail as foreign to them as the back side of the moon. My son bounds out of the car every morning with his lunchbox and disappears into 16th-century England. Every day the players discuss their lines, practice theatrical swordplay and discover the function of the king’s clown, not to mention the essential difference between tragedy and comedy. Which is as much to say, life itself. And then, one humid summer evening, we convene.
The fanfare sends its gathering notes over the tops of the mountain pines. Parents wait, motionless, on bench and blanket. Then the costumed children — six years old, 10, 15 — emerge from the woods behind the stage. They are already inhabiting someone else, and it’s momentarily breathtaking to see the child you know so well suddenly transformed into a prince, an old man, a lost sailor.
The play begins, their small voices now big with immortal poetry. They do not recite the lines; they live them. They comprehend what they say and who they are, completely and down to the bone: Puck, Orlando, Beatrice.
At the end, in a summer storm of applause, they take their bows. Suddenly they drop character like a cloak; overcome by supreme happiness — that of intense experience shared, and over — they hug. Teenagers with grade-schoolers, girls with boys. They are reluctant to break the clinch, because then they wake from a dream. This is the point at which parents have been known to run to the concessions tent so no one sees their tears. Though the brownies are awfully alluring, too.
Another week and these muslin shirts and embroidered bodices will again hang in the director’s closet waiting for next summer, and my son will be splashing in a pool, riding his bicycle, making animations on a laptop. But because of a small miracle that is actually quite large (this is here, by chance and by the Ashokan), a boy has learned that two weeks can be marked on a calendar. They can also be timeless.