Shakespeare for Kids
© Clare Hawley

© Clare Hawley

You can look forward to a rip-roaring program this July school holidays at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta including a brand new comedy from Bell Shakespeare.


Bell Shakespeare is Australia's national theatre company specialising in the works of William Shakespeare and his contemporaries. This winter they offer us a new look at two star cross’d lovers in Just Romeo & Juliet! Following their previous success with Just Macbeth! this latest production sees the literary skills of children’s novelist Andy Griffiths transform tragedy into kid-accessible comedy.

We chatted to Bell Shakespeare’s Education Head, Joanna Erskine about the value of theatre in a time ruled by virtual entertainment, engaging with the works of Shakespeare and what it’s like to work in the world of theatre.

Joanna Erskine

Joanna Erskine

TLH: what does your job involve?
JE: I am the Head of Education at Bell Shakespeare. That means I oversee a national Shakespeare education program reaching more than 80,000 students and teachers face to face each year, in 89% of federal electorates. Our program involves in-theatre productions, in-school performances, workshops, student scholarships, teacher mentorships, digital events and resources, and a wide-reaching Artist in Residence program. We’re in schools and communities, rural Australia, Juvenile Justice centres, Aboriginal communities, farming and mining towns – everywhere!

Most of my work is managing the program from our head office in Sydney, but I do occasionally get to teach students and teachers, and I write the Players touring shows. I am a playwright in my life outside of Bell Shakespeare, so it’s wonderful to bring my creative work into my role here.

TLH: how did you get started in theatre?
JE: I was always a writer when I was young, and so once I started drama at school I began writing plays. I directed and produced my own plays at university before studying playwriting at NIDA. Alongside this I was always interested in teaching and education. I figured that being an education manager at a theatre company would combine my love of theatre, education and writing. So when I went to university I did an arts management degree majoring in theatre, then completed a Graduate Diploma in Education. I always wanted to work at Bell Shakespeare, and after a brief teaching career, I’ve now been with the Company for 11 years. I maintain my own writing career alongside this.

TLH: what’s the best thing about being involved with theatre at Riverside?
JE: I love working with the Riverside team and really admire the diversity in programming and the huge focus on shows for young audiences. Young audiences are not ‘future audiences’ they are audiences now, and it’s everyone’s right to enjoy theatre. I’m a firm believer in starting young – especially with Shakespeare! I am also so impressed with Riverside’s access programs to ensure all people can enjoy their shows. I’m really excited that we’ll be offering relaxed performances of Just Romeo and Juliet!

TLH: what was your favourite Shakespeare play growing up?
JE: I have many favourites, but my first love was probably Romeo and Juliet, helped in no small part by Baz Lurhmann’s excellent 1996 film. The play has it all – from high comedy to incredible romance to utter tragedy.

TLH: how do you feel comedy enables kids to engage with the works of Shakespeare?
JE: Shakespeare is often perceived as something high on a pedestal, ‘high art,’ to be worshipped for its genius and beautiful language. Which is completely at odds with the original Shakespeare performances which were delivered to all and sundry, and were quite raucous affairs. I think Shakespeare would think we were crazy to still be performing his words, slavishly adhering to original practices and customs. We use comedy to show young people that you can play with Shakespeare’s plays and language, you can question them, while still respecting them. We take them off the dusty shelf and celebrate them, have fun with them, and test them to see how they resonate with our world today. Young people have often heard from others that they “won’t enjoy” Shakespeare, so when we present the plays with humour, yet still integrity, it’s a welcome surprise for them and it hooks them in.

TLH: what life lessons can children learn from this upcoming school holiday programme?
JE: Without giving too much away, children will see that they can control their own narrative – and even Shakespeare can be rewritten if we want to!

TLH: why should people come and see the July shows at Riverside?
JE: This show is perfect for the young and the young at heart. It’s for those just starting out on their Shakespeare journey, as well as those die-hard Shakespeare fans. For fans of Andy Griffiths’ books, you’ll see familiar characters taking on the greatest love story ever told with hilarious and disastrous results.

TLH: what sparks your interest in projects from an education angle?
JE: Being a former teacher, I’m a firm believer in keeping curriculum innovative, inventive, engaging and fun. Learning through performances like these has much more impact than learning from simply reading off a page. We need to activate Shakespeare’s language as it was originally intended. Now I have two young children of my own, so I am seeing how this work can translate for the very young! My four year old is already a bit of a Shakespeare nut. She loves the language and characters.

TLH: in your opinion, what’s the greatest threat to theatre?
JE: I think, for both young people and adults, there are so many forms of entertainment at our fingertips. It is easy to stay in and watch a tv series or a movie or scroll social media mindlessly. It takes a little more effort and a little more money to get out to see a theatre show, but once you are there, it is a human experience unlike any other. Performers telling a story just for you, a performance that will never be the same from night to night. And you are experiencing that story surrounded by other human beings, connecting through this shared experience. You will never get that watching something on a screen from the comfort of your couch.

TLH: how important is it that children continue to engage with the tangible experience of theatre-going?
JE: Going to the theatre makes us better human beings. We are exposed to characters and their stories that teach us more about our world and the people in it. We learn to communicate with others. We learn empathy through connecting with characters. Children adore storytelling, and there’s no more exciting form of storytelling that a real live person performing just for you.