a time in our lives when we don’t yet believe certain things are impossible.
are children, we are capable of anything. A child can be an astronaut, or a princess, or the world’s fastest runner.
It’s during this stage of endless possibilities that Anne DiPrima, co-director of the Young Shakespeare Players, grabs
young minds and helps them reach their amazing potential.
anyone if an 8-year-old child can participate in an adult role in William Shakespeare’s four-hour play “Hamlet,”
or Charles Dickens’ nine-hour play “Nicholas Nickleby.” The answer would likely be, “Of course not.”
Or perhaps, an adult might say, a child can learn to recite lines – but he won’t understand them. After all, they
say, many adults can’t understand the intricacies of Shakespearean language, humor and irony.
aims to prove them wrong.
For 27 years,
the Madison-based Young Shakespeare Players has produced unedited, full-length Shakespearean plays (and now some plays by
George Bernard Shaw and Charles Dickens) with casts of children ranging in age from 6 to 19. Co-directors Richard and Anne
DiPrima have worked tirelessly with thousands of young protégés over the years. “The adult world says these things are
difficult, if not impossible,” says Anne. “Most adult actors wait their lifetimes for these roles. But the kids
don’t yet believe that this is impossible. They become expert in the words of Shakespeare.”
founded YSP in 1980 and Anne joined him as co-director four years later. She also makes the costumes for the plays, which
have to be adjustable to fit the various sizes of children that will wear them.
program is unique – to the DiPrimas’ knowledge, there is no other program like it in the United States.
It’s also a non-profit organization, which operates, says Anne, “on a very desperately frayed shoestring.”
Depending on donations and tuitions for those who can pay (and offering scholarships to those who can not, so no one is turned
away), YSP also refuses to charge admission for its productions. “We want the plays to be accessible, and wouldn’t
want even a $2 ticket to keep someone from coming,” says Anne.
at YSP is stark – a black floor and background are the only “scenery,” and there are few props. This saves
money, but it also puts the audience’s attention where it belongs – on the young actors. Audiences will notice
that YSP is unique in another way too: “We cast with blindness to gender and age,” says Anne. “A male role
may be played by a girl or a boy; an adult role can be played by a 16-year-old or a 9-year-old.” Each production has
up to five casts, so the children have ample opportunity to play different roles. They also learn to direct each other.
Richard’s brainchild, and he’s devised an ingenious system to make the words of Shakespeare understandable to
young ears. “Richard has laboriously made tapes and CDs that explain every line,” says Anne. “The tapes
are the core of the program. They explain the historical references. The tapes provide a doorway to understanding. Without
them it would be impossible to do this.”
listen to the tapes and CDs with headphones, again and again and again. Once they grasp the intricacies of the language, says
Anne, “They zoom into the minutia … Not one cast member would accept even one line being dropped from the production.
They insist on all of it. They understand the importance of each and every scene.”
who are successful at YSP aren’t always the best students academically. They are all kinds of kids, from all kinds of
families. What they share is a desire to learn Shakespeare and a willingness to put forth the time and the effort. “I
believe fundamentally in the openness and intelligence of each child,” says Anne, and quotes Shakespeare: “‘The
readiness is all.’”
simultaneously in Madison and Chicago for several years, but now the program is exclusively in Madison. A generous benefactor has purchased the small theater building on West Lawn Street near Monroe Street,
and Anne and Richard live in the house next door, with their 18-year-old son Alessio, also a member of YSP. (Anne and Richard
had named him Alex, but he has chosen an Italian version of his name.)
at YSP – a volunteer position that is a full-time job in itself – Anne is in full-time practice as a clinical
psychologist at Mental Health Solutions on Madison’s
West side. (Richard is also a clinical psychologist, but is not currently in practice, devoting all his time to YSP.) Anne
finds that her passions – psychology, children and Shakespeare – compliment each other perfectly.
find they are the same sort of work,” Anne says. “In my psychology practice I have a desire to help people reach
their potential. It’s the same with YSP.” Half the day, she says, “I sit across from people asking me into
their lives. I love my clinical work. And here (at YSP) I get to interact with children creatively.” Moreover, she points
out, “Shakespeare was a genius of an observer. He knew so much of human nature. To study him is to study all pathologies.”
that at the root of depression and other emotional disturbances “is some kind of blockage from feeling expressive. There
is a loss of fulfillment. The more someone can express himself, the better their emotional health.” It’s the same
with the children in YSP, she says: “I’ve never thought of it so much as a theatre program, but as an emotional
growth program that promotes personal expression.”
who take participate in YSP are fortunate, Anne says. The process “grows the language areas of their brains and helps
them in the development of self-expression. They are able to internalize a character and become a character … It’s
a developmental achievement. And they can reproduce this achievement throughout their adult life.”
that with her clients at Mental Health Solutions, “I wish I could re-insert this sense of developmental victory so they
would know they have the right to succeed. They would be less likely to be blocked by self-doubt. They would have succeeded
in this amazing undertaking when they were young.”