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Children dressed up for the Shakespeare Festival
Landon Badger (third from right) performed in the DPS Shakespeare Festival with his third grade class.

Let’s Go: DPS Shakespeare Festival

DPS’ annual festival keeps the Bard alive (and lively) with special performances from Denver area students.

When Landon Badger’s third-grade teacher told his class they’d be performing a scene from Hamlet at the DPS Shakespeare Festival, he was excited, but a bit apprehensive. “I get nervous when I’m in front of people,” Landon admits. But sitting out wasn’t an option. At Slavens School in Denver where Landon attends, all third graders are required to participate in the yearly event.

Gretel Pavao, who has taught third grade at Slavens since 2003 can’t help but get excited about Shakespeare. “For some kids, this might be the only time they experience Shakespeare, and I really want it to be enjoyable and memorable,” she explains.

Like many teachers across the district, Pavao spends months preparing for the festival, introducing Shakespeare to students, and creating and rehearsing live performances. Last year, Landon was assigned the part of Laertes.

“I wasn’t really into acting,” Landon says. “But I liked it when Mrs. Pavao was teaching.”

Pavao, says that some of her most reluctant pupils—Landon included—have ended up stealing the show on the big day. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it when you see the excitement and joy performing Shakespeare brings to the children,” she says.

This year’s Macbeth-themed celebration kicks off with an opening ceremony in Skyline Park, at 15th and Arapahoe St., where high schoolers dressed as William Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth will deliver short soliloquies; 5,000 students will then parade to the Denver Performing Arts Complex, where theaters, tents, and even stairway landings will be transformed into 18 stages for more than 640 skits, sonnets, and Shakespearean scenes. “The only real requirement is that performances are original Shakespeare text,” says Anna Estes, Denver Public Schools’ arts event coordinator, meaning students from kindergarten through high school must memorize old-school English.

Offstage, children can grab a turkey leg or smoothie from on-site vendors, sit in on a fencing demonstration, and view performances by Colorado Ballet and the Denver Center’s Shakespeare in the Parking Lot ensemble. The Challenge Bowl, from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m., is always one of the most exciting events; this competition tests students on their knowledge of the life and times of William Shakespeare.

This year, Slavens will be one of 90 DPS schools at the festival, which is currently the largest and oldest student Shakespeare festival in the country. While some schools bring entire grades, others have a much smaller ensemble. Participation is free, and any DPS school is welcome to register—in fact, the event is so popular that students from adjacent districts have begun attending, too. “The festival has been going on so long that parents who participated as kids are now coming back to watch their children perform,” adds Estes.

For children like Landon, the Shakespeare Festival is a fun opportunity to learn about the poet, and maybe overcome stage fright. For other kids, though, this daylong fair provides a pathway toward literacy. Research has shown that studying Shakespeare improves literacy skills, and in a district like DPS, where nearly half of the students speak English as a second language, that’s something to celebrate. As Pavao puts it, “You really never know what kids are capable of until you give them a chance to shine.”

Check it Out:
DPS Shakespeare Festival, 1400 Curtis St., Denver
Need to Know:
This year’s festival takes place Friday, April 27, from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Insider Secret:
Street Theatre is a special stage (located in front of the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, inside the Denver Performing Arts Complex Galleria) where students can present two- to five-minute performances for which they haven’t auditioned. Sign-up is first come, first served, and participants must wear costumes.

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