This Child of Fancy

Free Shakespeare for Kids

When we founded Chesapeake Shakespeare Company in 2002, many days were bring-your-child-to-work days. My son, Addison, was three years old. Artistic Director Ian Gallanar’s daughter, Isadora, was also three. (Both are now in college!)

Of necessity, they were under foot a lot. Of necessity, they were at rehearsals and at performances.  And each of them saw a number of the performances of our very first production in 2003 here at the Ruins, Romeo and Juliet. They were surprisingly attentive while they watched.

So you could say that the kids helped solidify our theatrical partnership and inspired us to build a theatre company that always kept children in mind, both with family-friendly work policies and with creating a theatre experience where children would (almost) always be welcome.

When Father’s Day in 2004 rolled around, we thought, what nicer present could we give fathers, than that they could bring themselves and their kids for free to the PFI Historic Park and watch Much Ado About Nothing.  We were rather surprised when that was our first big sellout show.  (Well, with fathers and kids both free, we hardly made any money, but you get the idea!)

Everyone was so happy that day.  Kids everywhere.  Parents.  Picnics.  Even babies.  And the kids loved the show and were surprisingly attentive.

Hmmmm.  It was Summer of 2005. A Midsummer Night’s Dream—perfect for kids.  What if we made it free all summer for all kids under 11?   What if we designated Sundays as Family Performances, with special events for kids?  We did and it was a huge success! More than 500 children saw the performance, 300 of them under age 11.  Parents picnicked while their kids watched sword-fighting demonstrations, colored pictures of fairies, explored the park and site, had their faces painted, and listened to the story of the play told by the actor playing Puck.  Children were enraptured by Shakespeare’s timeless story brought to vivid life.

And then, in 2007, we got a sponsorship that allowed us to offer free admission to everyone 18 and under.  We decided that it was important for all students to have the opportunity to see Shakespeare—ideally, before they studied Shakespeare in school.  If a four-year old could be enraptured by a Shakespeare play, why not adolescents?  And they were enraptured…by the hundreds.

Today, a fifth of our outdoor audience are students under 19.  More than 10,000 children have attended our summer shows in the park for free.

Families have become an integral part of what we think about when we program.  We created the PNC Family Room in our downtown Baltimore theatre so that parents would feel comfortable bringing kids, knowing they had a place to retreat if their children got restless.  And while most theatres offer a 10 percent student discount or a student rush, our student and kid indoor tickets are always half price.  And our education program serves more children than any other theatre in Baltimore—13,000 came to our school matinees just this season.

This summer, Free Shakespeare for Kids is made possible by generous underwriters M&T Bank and the Caroline Fredericka Holdship Charitable Trust through the PNC Charitable Trusts. We’re so grateful to be able to continue, with their support,  introducing youth to live professional theatre.

If you have kids, please bring them. Please tell your friends who are parents about this program.  We want all our younger patrons to grow into interesting adults who love Shakespeare and relish spending time in a theatre (indoors or out).  We’re doing our very best to make that possible.

Essay by Lesley Malin, Managing Director, Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, reprinted from the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company Summer In-The-Ruins 2019 show program