In a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Demetrius calls for a sword. His request produces instead a yellow rubber chicken tossed from off stage.
“Shakespeare should be fun,” says Sherry Chastain Schreck, founding director of the “Short Shakespeareans.” Children in the drama troupe are 4 to 15, most of them pre-teenagers. In the 25 years since making their debut, the thespians have become a community treasure in Wenatchee.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a favorite of the Short Shakes. “The children love it. It is easy for young people to follow and understand,” Schreck says.
While the cast of characters has changed over the years, the enthusiasm never wanes. That was obvious in the troupe’s final summer performance last August. Approximately 30 youngsters danced about the stage in Wenatchee’s packed Riverside Playhouse, spouting a language from another era.
The two-hour production was a showcase for little dukes and queens, jesters, elves, and fairies. Some wore floppy caps, tunics, and tights. Others dressed in satin or velvet gowns, hair done up in braids. Under the stage lights, sequins on their costumes sparkled like their eyes.
Schreck’s goal is not to make all of them little actors and actresses, but to expose them to the theater, to have children come to love the language of Shakespeare.
The director has built her reputation on her love of children and Shakespeare and her unbridled imagination. She’s directed more than 150 plays while teaching in north central Washington middle schools and high schools. For more than two decades, she and her Short Shakes caravanned to Ashland, where they performed and attended plays and workshops at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. She taught children’s Shakespeare in Southern Oregon University’s Academy Program for 20 summers, and now heads the theater program at Wenatchee Valley College.
Last August she and the Short Shakespeareans were feted at a gala silver-anniversary celebration in the Wenatchee Convention Center, along with current and former cast members. One wall of the large banquet room was lined with two dozen placards, each featuring cast and candid photos for each year.
Schreck draws on the creative talents of hundreds of people-set builders, costume makers, painters, and promoters. She’s witnessed the rapport that has developed among involved families. She knows of no other children’s drama troupe in the country that is more developed or counts as many consecutive years as hers.
“Once you get involved with Sherry Schreck and her Short Shakespeareans, you are in it for life,” says John Renn, a set designer-builder who has volunteered his time from the beginning.
Schreck was inspired by her mentors at Washington State University during the 1960s. Janice Miller taught speech, coached the debate team, and directed Readers’ Theater. Bruce Anawalt taught Shakespeare for 36 years. Ed Vandivort, Bud Carlson, and Paul Wadleigh helped shape her life in the dramatic arts. Wadleigh founded WSU’s Summer Palace Theatre in 1966, and that year cast her in the lead in East Lynne.
From Miller and Anawalt, Schreck gained her appreciation of Shakespeare. Long after she graduated from WSU (’68 Speech, ’71 M.A. Speech), both mentors continued to follow her career. They attended the gala and the play in August.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens with the anticipation of a wedding festival in the Palace of Theseus, Athens. But conflict is at the core, too. Hermia refuses to marry Demetrius. She is smitten instead by the gallant young Lysander. The two lovers decide to elope. The ending is raucous. The spirit world infringes upon the mortal world-and wins. All of the seasons are in disorder. Pranks are played on the lovers and the workmen by elves and fairies.
“The children are completely into the spirit of it,” Anawalt said after watching the performance. “They create a world that is real to them while they are doing it.”
Instead of looking for the absolutely right way of interpreting scripts, Schreck and the children find what works. “We tap into our own imagination.”
She wants the children to “loosen their tent pegs and widen their perspective-to have them open themselves up to new ideas and approaches to acting out the scene.”
At the end of one scene in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, two little fairies give each other “high fives” before exiting the stage with happy smiles. Shakespeare allows the director to make modifications in the staging “to fit the age of the actors,” says Schreck.
Her daughter, Heidi Schreck, one of the original Short Shakes, remembers early performances as “a chance to be silly and have your parents think you were doing something wonderful.” Since then, she’s gone on to perform in Seattle and New York. Other Short Shakes are in Hollywood, have appeared on television and in movies, and performed with the Shakespearean companies in Ashland and Berkeley.
The creative action of the play, the blocking, hand gestures, and usage of props are things that she really works at, says Sherry Schreck. She remembers struggling to develop a lesson plan to use for Romeo and Juliet at Eastmont Junior High in 1978. That summer she attended a workshop at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and was taken by two elementary students performing a scene from The Taming of the Shrew.
“Everything just clicked,” she says. “I knew I wanted that experience for my own children.” Back home, she worked on scripts, dyed wigs, made headdresses, and then directed Heidi and a few friends in a couple of short scenes. The kids were hooked. So was their director.