Louise Chapman – English teacher and PGCE mentor
I’ll start off this blog post with this disclaimer: I’m a big fan of Shakespeare. This is probably not a surprise to you, given the topic of this blog post and my profession as an English teacher. Nonetheless, I find that one of the most frustrating aspects of the GCSE, A-Level and (most likely) Key-Stage Three English syllabus is teaching Shakespeare. It is not that I disagree with the idea in principle; it is the practice that bothers me.
Picture this scene: you have been teaching ‘Romeo and Juliet’ for a few weeks and have lovingly provided your Year 10 class with an abundance of contextual information about the Elizabethan era, familiarised them with the characters and carefully produced resources relating to relevant themes, characters, dramatic techniques, and so on— quite a utopia thus far, isn’t it? It is now the lesson you have been anticipating for ages: Mercutio’s death in Act Three (“A plague o’ both your houses!”) and Romeo’s hasty revenge. Only, when you get to that moment, you get distracted by the pupil reading Mercutio rocking on their chair (“how many times have I warned you, Ben?”), before shortly after noticing that some of the pupils are staring with glazed eyes at the incorrect page and the rest who are trying to keep up are just secretly wishing they were watching the Baz Luhrmann version instead.
Now obviously this is a slightly hyperbolic hypothetical situation, so excuse my creative licence here, but hopefully I have illustrated my point: Shakespeare was not written to be studied in a classroom with thirty teenagers— it was made for the stage. How are we ever supposed to get our students to appreciate the art of drama, performance, characterisation, staging, comic timing, dramatic irony (the list goes on), when they are trapped behind a desk reading a decrepit copy of the Bard’s work, which wasn’t intended for reading anyway?
So, you may quite rightly enquire, what is the solution? Well I am a teacher, so am therefore also a realist about the practicalities of teaching: limitations of space, time and resources to name but a few. It is not always possible to use English lessons to stage and perform a Shakespeare production (although kudos to those who try!); equally it is sometimes even less possible to organise for an entire year group to go and watch a performance of whatever play they are studying on a school trip. Luckily, this year I was presented with an antidote to my poison: the opportunity for my school to partake in the annual Shakespeare Schools Festival.
The Shakespeare Schools Festival (SSF) is affiliated with the Shakespeare Schools Foundation which “is a cultural education charity that exists to instill curiosity and empathy, aspiration and self-esteem, literacy and teamwork – giving young people the confidence to see that all the world is their stage” (SSF website). After entering into the festival, each school gets to select a Shakespeare play to perform a 30-minute adaptation of and select a local theatre at which to perform it. For my school I selected ‘Macbeth’, choosing to use (but slightly adapt) the script provided by the SSF.
Firstly, at the end of last academic year, I decided to hold auditions to cast the production. I know that some schools use drama lessons in order to rehearse and produce the play. However, I decided to implement the festival as an extra-curricular event, in order to accommodate as many year groups as possible and encourage students of all ages to get involved. In the end, auditions were necessary to cast the key roles. However, we were fortunate not to have to turn many pupils away, instead choosing to have a fairly expansive cast of 27 pupils, spanning Years 8-11.
My choice of play, ‘Macbeth’, rested primarily on the fact that it is a tragedy (my favourite genre) and also well known, as I was aware that we would also be performing to families and members of the public who may not have an expertise in Shakespearean language. In the ethos of being all-inclusive and celebratory of Shakespeare’s work, I then decided to create an ensemble piece, meaning that every single student would be on stage throughout the entire production (a bold move, some may say!).
Consequently, this decision entailed weeks of after school and lunchtime rehearsals with my dedicated cast of 27 girls (I teach at a single-sex school). Interestingly, the girl playing Lady Macbeth was a Year 11 student in a lower-achieving GCSE English set and it was amazing to see, as the weeks progressed, how her fluency, expression and understanding of Shakespeare increased an amazing amount. Her English teacher was absolutely delighted and amazed at the progress the student was able to make in her GCSE studies, primarily through an increase in resilience when approaching unfamiliar literary texts.
I would suggest that this benefit was reaped by all students, regardless of age and ability, and as rehearsals slowly but surely progressed and the students began to learn lines by heart, I was transformed to a place far, far away from the sleepy GCSE version of Shakespeare’s language, to a new land where, once again, the Bard’s words were brought to life. The great thing about the SSF is that you get to perform alongside and watch productions from other schools in your local area, in a non-competitive and celebratory manner. Aside from our production of ‘Macbeth’, which closed the show in Act Two, we were able to sit in the audience during Act One and watch one school perform ‘The Tempest’, followed by a modern adaptation of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, involving baseball gangs.
Another great aspect of this festival is that, aside from promoting the actual performance, once you have your cast, you can re-produce the show at school events in order to reach out to other pupils who were not involved in the production, so that they too can witness Shakespeare on stage. For example, at my school, we are performing the play in a Creative Showcase evening in a couple of weeks, following the huge success of the show in the theatre. I have had numerous staff members approach me to comment on how much they are looking forward to watching the Shakespeare performance!
Of course, directing a Shakespeare play (even an abridged version), is a huge undertaking and I would not recommend doing so without a team of dedicated helpers. I was lucky enough to have a fellow English teacher (Anna) to co-direct and take responsibility for props and costumes, as well as my amazing trainee (Lara) to contribute ideas with her background of Shakespeare and performance.
Lara Garrett – PGCE English trainee
The exceedingly wise John Barton once commented that in order to understand the language of Shakespeare, you have to ‘find the language and make it your own’ (Barton 1984). At this point in my career I approach this comment with a comfortable understanding. However, if I were to cast my mind back to a 13 year-old version of myself, I think I would be a little lost. Shakespearean language can often seem complex and other-worldly from the outset (and I think my 13 year old self would also be incredibly grateful to the first genius who thought it may be an idea to translate some words into modern day language). In order to understand the language of a Shakespearean play, there is no better way than to get it up on its feet- to experience it, to live it (not literally of course). As Louise has pointed out, these plays are meant to be acted and watched and I think this can often be the key for a younger age group to unlock the occasionally intimidating world of Shakespeare.
When Louise asked me to help out with her production of ‘Macbeth’ for The Shakespeare Schools Festival, I was absolutely thrilled. What a fantastic opportunity and additionally, a fabulous choice of play. With the cast members ranging in age from Year 8 through to Year 11, initial thoughts may be that there would be a slight divide- a tendency to unite in year groups (safety in numbers). However, I was met with the absolute opposite. It was an utterly united cast, all willing to help each other, share ideas and dedicate themselves to put on a spectacular performance. As I found myself pacing up and down the corridor in a rhythmical way with the student playing the lead character, as a means of learning lines, I was over the moon to see the spirit and enjoyment that was being found in this play. I truly believe that so much can be said for speaking the plays, and if the opportunity arises, to partake in enacting them, discovering new things and successfully taking these plays from page to stage.
Reflecting now on the experience of the festival, I can without doubt say that every student took something from the experience and learnt so much during the process. From the entertaining warm ups activities, led by working actors who are ever-present in the festival’s programme, to Louise’s fantastic directing – involving many of the students’ ideas as she worked towards a finished product, this really was a wonderful experience. I hope that these opportunities continue; I hope that there are limitless chances for students to step out on stage with a Shakespeare play in hand and simply have a go.