Shakespeare Camp

Hey. Did you know when I was a child in the mid-nineties I went to Shakespeare Camp for several summers in a row? Now you do, and it’s why I am so loud, it’s called projecting and enunciating. I have received formal training.

In my thespian years, ages 8-14, I played mostly middle-aged Italian men, because they tend to feature prominently in Shakespearean comedies, whether I was a cop or a prince or a terrible father. Shakespeare Campers were overwhelmingly girls- so we all got assigned to Shakespeare character types. I was a 10 year old girl doing dad drag. I had a lot of Monopoly Man mustaches glued to my preteen face. I wore weird puffy hats with feathers, pantaloons, and pancake makeup functioning as bronzer (not effectively).

Image of two young women in costume playing old men in Shakespeare.
The flash was never kind to me (as Baptista) with my friend, Jennifer Hernandez. Bunny ears.

The only library point I’m going to make about this is that it’s a bummer that I can find no evidence on the interwebs that my Shakespeare Camp ever existed. So I’m here to tell you that in the 1990s every summer at Valparaiso University,  cornfed Midwestern babies trod the motherfucking boards, and tried their best to honor the Bard. Actual theater faculty helped us, and they were so sincere about it.

In retrospect, it was the purest magic. At the time, I hated it as much as I enjoyed it. I felt weird about myself, and I didn’t like people looking at me- I hear this is a common adolescent experience. Little did I know that playing secondary characters in Shakespeare would anesthetize me to so much fear of embarrassment- giving me the invisible armor necessary to be a pretty ok presenter and a loud professional lady. It is never clear, in my experience, when you’re doing the often difficult work to build your self-confidence, that you are doing anything besides torturing yourself. 

Images of six young women in costume (many as old men) in a production of the Taming of the Shrew.
Mustaches all around. Adds to the sense of authenticity. I got to hold a staff in this production. Props are cool!

Sometimes we performed outside in a weird crumbling ampitheater, but mostly we performed in an extremely colorless University auditorium to an audience of no one but our supportive parents. For a couple years, at its peak, Shakespeare camp actually did TWO productions in a summer, one with older kids and one with younger kids who had no idea what they were saying. It was incredible.

I spent my awkward years at a weird, niche theater camp experience, and all that Shakespeare became one of my major bases of trivia knowledge. What I mean to say is, I come here not to bury Caesar, but to praise the very bad production of Julius Caesar I was a part of at age 9.  


Here’s every Shakespearean character I ever played, ranked.

Antonio’s Servant – The Merchant of Venice – 1 Line –  Dude, Antonio is a loser and an antisemite and even as a child I knew it. Spent my one line frowning at everybody before running offstage crying. I bombed my first audition and my first live performance. Obviously.

image of me and my mom (I am in costume) outside the weird ampitheater.
As Antonio’s servant (I was 8). Servants didn’t get great costumes. But look at my mom, rocking the epitome of cute 90s mom perms.

Volumnius – Julius Caesar – 3 lines – My first named part! I definitely wanted to be Strato,  who holds the sword that Brutus falls on. But instead, old Volumnius utters his most memorable line (number three of three) “That’s not an office for a friend, my lord,” which I delivered very smugly as I thought fit the characterization of a dude whose name is “Volumnius.” My artistry was growing.

Baptista – The Taming of the Shrew – 68 Lines –  The Shakespeare Camp made some bold production choices, and the Taming of the Shrew definitely already felt super regressive by the time we put on the production (in 1995 or 1996). I played Baptista, who is just a super bad dad. Just a terrible dad. My most lines ever on stage! But the 90s were pretty saturated with dads in media. I had recently watched Three Men and a Baby and based my performance on Steve Guttenberg.

Prince Escalus – Romeo and Juliet –  16 Lines – The Prince is interesting because he’s a prince but he’s also mostly a cop? Maybe more of a mayor. My parents and I were watching The Commish and I tried to act like Michael Chiklis (to some success). I got the first big speech and the last big speech of the play. All are punish’d, jerks.

Dogberry – Much Ado About Nothing – 52 Lines –  Dogberry is the incompetent constable with an inflated sense of his ability and importance. I got such a kick out of playing him because the Kenneth Branagh Much Ado had been released pretty recently, and I thought that Michael Keaton was the shit. He was BATMAN after all.

Puck- A Midsummer Night’s Dream – 33 Lines – Did my first Puck in Shakespeare Camp and my second in a 7th grade school production. So this was probably 1994 or 1995). After all the renaissance dad costumes, it was super fun just wearing a weird swirl of fabric and a ton of face paint! Definitely tried to channel some Goblin King vibes. I got the last speech of the play, too. I loved doing the last speech! You get to do a deep bow and the lights go down. Definitely the pinnacle of my repertoire apart from…

Hamlet – Hamlet – 358 Lines –  Lol, jk. We never did Hamlet. I am thinking of naming a future dog Hamlet though. When I get annoyed I’ll call him “some Prince of Denmark,” dismissively af.

My biggest Shakespearean regret is that one year I didn’t do it, and the Camp did Macbeth, and I wanted to be in that blood and guts so bad but my family took a trip to Montana instead. But that was also a good and formative time. I also regret (slightly) that I stopped doing Shakespeare Camp when I got to high school, but by then I had other burgeoning interests like Spell Bowl and being an insufferable, puffed up baby intellectual who carried a copy of the Communist Manifesto around.

Shakespeare Camp forever. From the vantage of my midthirties, I am deeply appreciative of the way the camp empowered us, children, to interpret and claim these immortal plays. How it made me want to try new “fancy” things, like smoking cloves and going to spoken word poetry, but also painting and sculpture and foreign films. If I didn’t do Shakespeare, it would have taken me so much longer to find my way to film and literature. I didn’t actually like acting, to be honest. But I loved being able to make something, and I loved the “production”- the outfits and music and art. The ways in which I am “extra” owe a great deal to Shakespeare Camp. 

To paraphrase The Dude Himself, All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women, merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, and one Midwestern tween in her time plays many parts.

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