'Tales from Shakespeare': The Bard for children ... and adults looking for a quick (audiobook) primer

Tina Packer releases new audiobook

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Shakespeare, it's been said, wrote "King Lear" during the plague. But during the pandemic, Tina Packer adapted it.

On Monday, Packer, the founding artistic director of Shakespeare & Company, will release "Tales From Shakespeare," a new audiobook that adapts 10 of Shakespeare's most famous plays into short stories.

The new audiobook is based on Packer's written edition of "Tales From Shakespeare," a children's book with two editions published through Scholastic that won the Parent's Gold Medal Award. The 10 modern-language adaptations are geared toward learners ages 5 through 14, but are suitable for anyone interested in familiarizing themselves with Shakespeare's plots, including attendees of Shakespeare & Company's typical summer offerings.

"A lot of audience members have told me, 'Well, I read the synopsis from 'Tales From Shakespeare' first,'" said Packer, with a laugh.

Packer began the project while in quarantine in March, shortly after she recovered from the novel coronavirus, which she believes she contracted while at a guest workshop for breathing techniques. As a classically trained actress, Packer has taught breathing techniques for years, to help one control voice and breath. Packer, who is 81, feels strongly that those same techniques helped her overcome the virus.

"I had COVID right in March," said Packer, who said she thinks she got the illness from a fellow projecting participant. "I had been teaching a workshop in Boston the weekend before and two people in our group of 14 had COVID. Anyway, I came back down here and was feeling pretty rotten, and then I started doing my breathing exercises that I learned from the company and started getting better."

After a full recovery, and newly in isolation, Packer figured she might get around to a project she'd long hoped to undertake: an audio version of "Tales from Shakespeare." An audiobook of Shakespeare is especially beneficial, explained Packer, because many struggle with the correct pronunciation of Elizabethan words and names.

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"Why I thought it would be a good idea for me to read it, a word is spelled G-L-A-N-I-S and you think it's `Glan-nis' but it's pronounced `glahns,'" Packer said. "All things like that that people don't know, it makes them nervous. They think, am I pronouncing this right?"

Additionally, Packer re-obtained the rights from Scholastic after the second edition so she could adjust wording in the stories to make them feel more contemporary — though of course, explains Packer, the delight of Shakespeare's stories are that they are age-old.

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Packer recorded the 10 tales at the studio of Allison Larkin, an acclaimed audiobook narrator who works in Stockbridge. Larkin and Packer are both originally from England, but Packer doesn't believe that her warm British accent is necessarily "better" for reading Shakespeare. In fact, said Packer, the closest accent to the dialect used in Shakespeare's day can be found in the brogues of English and Scottish colonial descendants living on isolated islands in the Carolinas.

"I think American is just as close to Elizabethan English as English is, and maybe even closer," Packer said. "England has been more and more repressed with the empire, which closed their emotions and voices down more than America has."

Packer has trained her voice to convey emotion well — she must, given that the tales alternate between comedy and tragedy (the comedies in the audiobook are "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "As You Like It," "Much Ado About Nothing," "The Tempest," and "Twelfth Night"; the tragedies, "Romeo and Juliet," "King Lear," "Macbeth," "Othello," and "Hamlet.")

As short story adaptations, Packer's tales grapple with themes difficult for some children, such as murder and suicide (the star-crossed lovers in "Romeo and Juliet," of course, end their own lives, as famously does Hamlet). But Packer believes that while some tales — such as the bloody Macbeth — may not be appropriate for younger listeners, children can learn much from the gentle way her audiobook introduces intense themes.

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"I think it's Bruno Bettelheim, the German psychologist, who says the reason we tell fairy tales to children is that it prepares them for life," said Packer, who thinks of Shakespeare's archetypes as somewhat similar to fairy tale characters. "They usually only hear what they can hear and don't hear what's difficult for them to comprehend. But that's why Grimm's fairy tales are rather grim, since it's good for kids to hear."

However, since the tales can entertain children of all ages, Packer believes you can still enjoy the comedies with your children and hold off on playing the other tracks until later.

"I don't think I'd read my 5 year old 'Macbeth,' since it does say he can't stop killing people," said Packer with a laugh "But maybe in two years time."

Since finishing the audiobook, Packer has also been enjoying and revisiting some of the bard's plays she did not tape — Shakespeare's late plays. As Packer waits to see what the future will hold — including whether Shakespeare & Company will be able to mount its annual Fall Festival of Shakespeare, an event in which Berkshire high schoolers perform Shakespeare's plays at the company's theater in Lenox — she has particularly enjoyed how the late plays, which include "The Winter's Tale" "Pericles" and "The Tempest," process tragedy and work toward resolution.

Shakespeare's ability to speak truths still felt today, explains Packer, makes "The Tales of Shakespeare" particularly special as a project now.

"They show the way out of a terrible mess," Packer said.


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