Kitty Thompson: Shakespearience
To try to catch up with Kitty Thompson on any given day must be how a tailor feels when trying to hem the bottom of a whirling dervish’s costume – while said dervish is whirling. Because Thompson, founder and director of Mill Valley’s Shakespearience, is just like that: a roiling, twirling, pulsating gob of energy, especially when it comes to teaching the works of William Shakespeare.
“YEAH!!” screams Thompson -- louder even than any parents – at the end of Act 1, Scene 3 of “Hamlet,” after Polonius tells Ophelia not to risk her reputation by seeing Hamlet. “GOOD JOB, GOOD JOB!!! “WOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”
Since founding Shakespearience in 2007, the San Francisco-born Thompson has not seen her passion wane. Today, lessons from the Shakespearience program are brought to every 4th and 7th grader in the Mill Valley School District -- an endeavor first championed by Thompson along with Old Mill 4th grade teacher Karen Levin in 2015 -- with funding from Kiddo!. And it’s not just that flowery Shakespearian dialogue you’ll hear tumbling out of the mouths of 10 year olds: It’s not unusual to drive past a Mill Valley school playground and see students out on the blacktop, jousting with makeshift broadswords. It’s a curriculum, Thompson insists, that is almost combustible.
“My dad introduced me to ‘Hamlet’ when I was 5,’ says Thompson, remembering an age most kids might have been familiarizing themselves with the nuances of a Sit-and-Spin or a Spirograph. “Shakespeare caught fire to my brain and heart very early. Luckily, I was able to sculpt my career to fit that fire.”
In today’s world, where we whittle words down like a seasoned Bavarian wood carver working a piece of spruce, where almost any word or group of words are shortened for the sake of ease – “var” is varsity, “BoMel is Giants Manager Bob Melvin, and “rizz” is, well, ask a teenager – it’s almost surprising that the works of Shakespeare captivate and resonate with young students, but they do.
“The stories make sense,” says Thompson, an award-wining Actors Equity Association actress who spent her college years in San Diego and apprenticed at Cal Shakes in the East Bay. “They help children understand their world and develop empathy. The poetry is so powerful that it elevates their sensibilities and fosters the art of articulate thinking, not to mention self-expression.”
Not only do the stories make sense, but Thompson endeavors to make the curriculum relevant and contemporary.
“I’m constantly bending (the curriculum), growing with the new creativity every student infuses in the text,” she says. “And yes, part of our teaching style is to ask about and highlight current cultural parallels. This helps students personalize the text, to make it their own.”
In 4th grade, students get the Shakespearian basics: they cover Henry VIII, Elizabeth, James, The Old Globe, iambic pentameter, they do a small performance piece, and get the stories behind four of the major tragedies. In 7th grade at MVMS, students work on Shakespeare history, physical storytelling, stage craft and self-expression, do a performance piece, all the while rotating through different plays every year.
While Thompson gets a jolt of energy by teaching the works of her favorite bard, any of the acting she does while instructing students is about as far as it goes for her these days. After her own children were born, she basically hung up her acting shoes, and dove head-first into parenting, and teaching.
“It has been through being a mother that I found such love for all children,” she says. “Watching them discover Shakespeare’s profound work is a lot more fulfilling than my being on stage. I kind of feel like I had my turn, my time…it was my training ground which led me to Shakespearience.”