Nick Newlin has been entertaining children of all ages for 30 years with a comedy juggling act. He spent 20 years as a Teaching Artist with Folger Shakespeare Library in DC, which led to his book series “The 30-Minute Shakespeare”. The series includes twenty edits of Shakespeare plays with stage directions and suggestions for using performance-based learning to teach Shakespeare in the Classroom. He published a Scene and Monologue book The 30-Minute Shakespeare Anthology. https://www.30minuteshakespeare.com/ He also plays rock and roll accordion!
Welcome Nick and thanks for joining Supadu today! What is the 30-Minute Shakespeare and how did it come about?
The 30-Minute Shakespeare is a series of 20 plays — lasting no longer than 30 minutes each — and an anthology. The reason behind the condensed plays came about after a teaching artist’s residency I did with Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C. for 20 years. I would go into a D.C. high school English class as a visitor and teach several classes for a number of weeks, culminating in a 30 minute performance at the student Shakespeare Festival in an Elizabethan theatre. I had been a performer as a juggler for this festival in the past and therefore had seen a lot of the shows. I noticed that a lot of the schools put on a mashup of plays or a collection of scenes along a theme which often slightly lost the audience: there was no arc; it was just a pastiche. The ones that worked for me were the ones that tried to tell the story of the play in 30 minutes and managed to keep the arc going. So I picked between three and nine key scenes that really advanced the plot, the characters and the language; and scenes that had the most ‘juicy’ action and emotional content. Those were the scenes that would really anchor the play. Sometimes the narrator would come on between the scenes to fill the audience in.
After doing that for 10 years, I realised that I had some really nice 30-minute cuttings of plays that were very helpful for beginner Shakespeare students and actors, as two to three hour plays are too much for a young student. I liken it to weightlifting: you don’t start with a 30 pound weight, you start with a 5 pound weight! The 30-Minute Shakespeare makes students enthusiastic about performing Shakespeare and because they’re up on their feet, acting and moving around with all the emotions, it really helps them grasp Shakespeare, rather than just reading it or having someone explain the themes to them.
Did you find particular plays hard to condense because of all the rich language and many important scenes?
Absolutely — I had to make some hard decisions and stick with them to make the plays stay within 30 minutes. The best outcome was always when the students felt an ownership of a Shakespeare play and that they really were the character they were acting. Sometimes if the students saw the play performed afterwards they would say “that’s my line! I did that! I did it better!”.
In terms of which scenes I kept in, the method evolved a little bit over the 20 book series. I wrote one play during each year of my residency so it stretched over 20 years and naturally this meant my understanding of how things worked changed. I ended up increasing the number of scenes but making them shorter. This allowed more students to be involved and give everybody a chance to have a major role. We would have three Hamlets, for example, and they would all wear the same outfit which meant more students had the chance to take centre stage. It also advanced the plot better as there were fewer scenes left out and they flowed into one another seamlessly.
The second thing I realised over the course of the series is how important the chorus is. This really came to head when I put on Julius Caesar. The chorus is a significant part of that play and these scenes allowed shy students who didn’t want a solo speaking part to get more involved. So in subsequent plays, even ones that didn't necessarily call for a chorus, I would put one in to help with that group feeling and greater participation.
Did that make Julius Caesar your favourite play to put on with the students?
Well my favourite Shakespeare play is Twelfth Night and that was the first play I put on with the students so it’s very dear to my heart. Some of my favourite plays to put on were the minor plays like Henry IV Part I because of the comedy, the drama, the weight and the history. The Merry Wives of Windsor is another of my favourites because of the domestic comedy with a lot of silliness. I often discover which are my favourites alongside the kids, such as Love’s Labour’s Lost, which I hadn’t really explored before I started directing it and really enjoyed learning it with them.
What’s the age range of the students and did you direct these plays at multiple schools or just one?
This particular project that I was doing was just in Washington D.C. and my residency for 20 years was always in the same school, Banneker Academic High School. I worked with 9th graders for about 12-15 years and then for the last five years I worked with 12th graders, which was slightly my reward for working with the 9th graders for so long! I have been interested in bringing Shakespeare to even younger grades though. The Folger Shakespeare Library has taught me everything I know about teaching Shakespeare and they have a wonderful children’s Shakespeare festival for a younger age group so it can be done!
Often, when I approach American elementary school teachers with the idea of putting on the plays for younger kids they think it’s too hard but it isn’t: it’s just like learning another language and young kids are very good at absorbing new information. I think part of the teachers’ hesitation is that they themselves haven’t been taught Shakespeare correctly — it was lectured to them rather than performed. So a big part of my role is to teach teachers how to teach Shakespeare! Performance-based learning is a buzzword that we use.
We were taught Shakespeare swear words at school to make us engaged! It sounds like you do similar exercises with your students?
We do — we run a similar exercise where you line the students up in groups and they yell Shakespearean insults at each other. The words are fun to say and because they’re in a big group they don’t get offended! Saying the words is a pleasurable experience whether or not we fully understand what’s being said. When I wrote the 30-Minute Shakespeare anthology, which is essentially a monologue book, I tried to look at the monologue almost as though it was a piece of music. In other words you have harsh sounds, soft sounds, high-pitched and low-pitched sounds. There are pauses and motifs, and the sounds are very appealing.
We spoke about the confidence some of your students gain from performing these plays. What other benefits are there?
As well as confidence and a sense of community, the students gain an appreciation for language and an understanding of the possibilities of language. They learn about the beauty of language as a means for communication and an art form.
Can you tell me a bit more about your background and how this led you to what you do now?
My mother was an English teacher and a lover of Shakespeare, plays and music. I was exposed to Shakespeare and the arts younger than most American kids. When I was in 6th Grade I went and saw a version of Two Gentlemen of Verona as a musical. It was very sexy, funny and fast and that was one of my first experiences of Shakespeare — as a cutting edge, modern play but still using the same language as the original.
When I was a young adult I spent ten years performing a juggling act at a Renaissance fair and that’s still one of my main occupations. My background in performing and experience at these Renaissance fairs led me into this sort of world and it’s a jolly, Elizabethan world with a lot of colour, merriment and music. When I went back to grad school at the University of Marilyn when I was in my early thirties, I had that comic sensibility and that jester sensibility that I brought to my own work with the students.
Looking to 2022, do you have a new play on the horizon or anything else coming up this year?
The 30-Minute Shakespeare series is now complete at 20 plays and the anthology. I retired from my residency in 2017 and subsequently I co-wrote a play called Shakespeare’s Worst with a college friend of mine who is a writer for The Simpsons.
We chose Two Gentlemen of Verona as the basis of Shakespeare’s Worst because of the absurd ending and we went to various Shakespeare festivals, including the Bristol Shakespeare Festival, the Utah Shakespeare Festival and Capital French Festival in Washington. It has a similar vibe to the 30-Minute Shakespeare plays in that it uses Shakespeare’s actual language but turns it on its' head. Now that theatres are up and running again post-Covid, that’s something I’d like to work on. The second thing I’d like to do is a one-hour, one-man Shakespeare workshop where I would go into a school and introduce theatre games to the students, culminating in a short scene with the group.
During Covid we put on a series of online events, including a Zoom class called ‘let’s make a scene’ where we would read through plays in a round-robin style. You don’t get assigned a role but you get to read a line or two of every role. It’s a monthly event and a great way to keep Shakespeare fun! We do a lot of games on Facebook and Instagram too, such as a predictive text game where you start a Shakespeare line and see how your phone finishes it up. We try and insert the playfulness of 30-Minute Shakespeare into our online experiences and into the Shakespeare’s Worst play.
That’s great you managed to find ways to move online over the past few years. Is that what prompted you to have a new website too?
It was partly Covid-fuelled but I was also frustrated by my previous website and the lack of control I had. Supadu had a great reputation and some of my publishing colleagues were using it. I love that I can put on sales and easily make changes to the website myself.
I see that you have ePub versions of your Shakespeare plays. Who are your main audience for them and do they sell as well as physical?
I’ve discovered that my core audience is middle and high school English teachers because those are the ones that need help teaching Shakespeare. As a result, the PDF sales are the best: I get all the money from the PDF sales (from the physical and ebooks, my distributor gets a cut) and it means the teachers can print out the PDFs and distribute them to the class. It’s great value and I don’t charge performance rights. I do love the physical copy though and there’s something nice about holding the physical copy but from a business point of view, the PDF is by far the most economical for me and the most useful for the teachers.
Is your audience solely US based?
No they’re not and that’s the great thing about Shakespeare - he’s taught all over the world! We have some international clients and that’s an area I would really like to expand. We have clients in Europe and want to expand into India and Hong Kong. We’re testing out ways to enter international markets through our social media, like Facebook ads, and that seems the best way for us. TikTok is another area we want to try out so that’s one for 2022!
Thanks for joining us Nick! You can find out more about 30-Minute Shakespeare here.