Don’t get him wrong, Brendan P. Kelso, materials engineer, understands very well the value of STEM courses (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) in schools. But Kelso is one of those rare individuals who is not just that “math kid” who aced all those classes; he’s also head over heels in love with theater, or as it’s known in schools, drama. And he’s on a mission to turn STEM into STEAM, ensuring that the A for arts achieves equal standing in that line-up.
“Creativity is the one thing that schools are missing,” he says. “Remember, nobody ever made a real difference in the world just doing the same ol’ thing. New ideas and solutions only come from those who are willing to try something new,to take risk,to be creative.” Andnothingfosters creativity like the arts.
So twelve years ago, Kelso launched a business—with strong support from Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP)—based on his belief that learning something new is easier when it’s fun. At Playing with Plays (PlayingWithPlays.com) Kelso offers Shakespeare’s most famous works, plus classics by Dickens, Kipling, Carroll, Dumas, Austen, Stevenson, and Shelley, re-written for children. Just 15 to 50 minutes long when performed, the timeless stories, replete with their famous familiar lines, are easily modified to accommodate class or group size and include ideas for staging, sets, and costumes. Most importantly, they are a fine way to introduce school-age children to the wonderful world of theatre, to encourage them to try new ways of doing things, and to understand what used to be pretty daunting stuff!
The seeds for Playing with Plays were planted in high school where Kelso found a place to belong in the drama department. Famous for giving misfits a “home,” drama also offered Kelso a way to mitigate his then- undiagnosed dyslexia. Memorizing lines and monologues (especially Shakespeare’s) was a fun way to practice reading.
After graduating from Cal Poly with a degree in Materials Engineering, Kelso followed the girl of his dreams to San Diego where he worked first as a carny on the summer fair circuit, and later as a systems engineer for the navy, and later still, as a quality engineer for Sony. He would marry that same girl, and early in their marriage, the couple loaded up a Toyota truck and trailer with two dogs and a cat and spent six months on the road. They would visit 41 states before discovering that SLO is where they really wanted to settle.
But the real birth of Playing with Plays coincides with the birth of Kelso’s son sixteen years ago. Suddenly, he was a stay-at-home dad with too much time on his hands. So his wife (who was not crazy about being the family’s only breadwinner) signed him up to teach a Shakespeare for Kids class at their local Parks and Rec department. Kelso started with Hamlet, using a script that had been tweaked for children. For 90 minutes each week, Kelso and the kids rehearsed, mounted, and eventually performed the play, and he says, “The kids had a blast!” The curtain had barely fallen when his students wanted to know what play was next. In the following nine months, Kelso would write, direct, and produce a half-dozen more. Soon he was being approached by home-school sites, local theater groups, after-school programs, summer camps, and both public and private schools.
Along the way, Kelso returned to work full-time as an engineer. So he put the project down for a while … until he discovered self-publishing. He was especially attracted to the new print-on-demand feature. He began with the then-fledgling company, Book Surge, which later became CreateSpace. Kindle Direct Publishing has taken over CreateSpace, giving authors the opportunity to publish and market their work online with greater ease (and less expense) than ever before.
Authors who use KDP enjoy several benefits over traditional publishing. The website tells us that authors can keep creative control of their work, retain their rights, and set their own prices. The work gets to market fast, appearing on Kindle stores worldwide within minutes of setting up the book. They can make more money than with a traditional publisher, often earning industry-leading royalties on sales, up to 70%. And they can publish e-books and paperbacks, distribute them in multiple languages, and access free tools and services to find their readers. For a how-to lesson, visit Amazon.com and type in Kindle Direct Publishing.
Today, Kelso has published 25 books (scripts for plays) and has reached hundreds of thousands of kids who perform them all over the world. The memorable moments during the past dozen years have been many. Turns out that Shakespeare is surprisingly appealing to children of all ages. Just go to Kelso’s website and watch a video of Kelso acting out the stories himself.
In fact …
Teachers and parents alike sing Kelso’s praises. With stories that feature witches, ghosts, sword-swinging, poison, murder, and mayhem … what’s not for a kid to love?
“Tragedies are actually more fun than comedies,” Kelso explains. “Kids love the melodramatic. They love to die, and often take two or three spins across the stage and end with the classic leg twitching. … Even the concept of murder and the extremely sensitive topic of suicide offer amazing teaching moments.”
Over the last dozen years, there have been many standout moments, but Kelso was especially moved by a little boy in Kenya. It seems a teacher who had purchased several of his plays for her classroom in Wichita, Kansas, started a nonprofit to help children learn better in third world countries. She took Kelso’s Romeo & Juliet for Kids with her to Kenya and sent a photo back to Kelso. In it, an 8-year-old boy—after walking to school from his home in the poorest section of the village—is holding up an open script, with a smile
as wide as the book itself. Kelso gazed in wonder at the picture and realized his work was making a real difference.
With a goal to write three new scripts every year, Kelso will publish Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women for Kids this year. Talk about great timing! And watch for his future dream, Hamlet the Musical, coming … eventually.
Three years ago, Brendan P. Kelso left the corporate nine-to-five world to trust his first passion and do what he calls “this author/teaching/speaking thing” fulltime. He’s earning a good living, is certainly fulfilled, and well on his way to achieving his new mantra: “Get all the kids in the worldtolikeShakespeare!” Because STEM needs the A for arts now more than ever.