North West Drama are one of the workshop leaders at this year’s Music & Drama Education Expo | Manchester. Creative producer Matt Wardle tells us about their flagship project, the Children’s Shakespeare Festival, which has just celebrated its tenth anniversary.
What are the Children’s Shakespeare Festivals?
The Children’s Shakespeare Festivals (CSF) are a series of large scale inter-school festivals. They take place each academic year across two terms, and comprise a short, intensive residential INSET for school staff, specialist workshops with pupils in school, and a comprehensive scheme of work. This is followed by work towards a final festival performance on prestigious professional stages across the North West, where students perform plays of their own devising, based on their classroom exploration. Our theatre partners include the Royal Exchange Theatre, The Lowry, Oldham Coliseum Theatre and the New Vic.
What is the timeline of a festival?
Each CSF has a director who works closely with each participating class at different stages of the project, which has three distinct phases:
Exploration: The project begins with our immersive residential INSET, before a launch workshop is delivered in school by the festival director, followed by the teacher delivering the scheme of work. This usually happens during the first term of the project.
Devising: Each class and their teacher is given a ‘performance focus’, an area of the story to give further attention to. This might be a particular character or moment from the story. They are tasked with devising a 10-minute performance using some of Shakespeare’s words, their own words, movement and music. Later on, the festival director visits again, and works with the teacher to prepare for performance. We provide a ‘palette’ of music, composed and recorded by our brilliant live musician Sam McLoughlin and encourage classes to select music that _ ts and enhances their piece. Sam plays live during the final performance.
Performance: Just prior to the performance day, teachers meet with the stage management team from our partner theatres to finalise technical requirements. This is offered as lighting and sound palettes, making it as straightforward as possible. Each class has a technical rehearsal on stage before all the performers come together for performance day, to share their learning with parents, carers and friends. Although this is the broad structure of the festival, schools are encouraged to make the project work in the best way for them, so it sometimes works a little differently.
Can you tell us how and why CSF started?
The CSF was founded by John Doona, in 2009. John had been a secondary drama teacher before becoming Cheshire local authority’s drama advisor. Following the removal of advisor roles at local authority level, John established North West Drama to ensure that drama development and CPD was not lost.
The first CSF took place in a sports hall in Cheshire, with four local schools participating. The following year, the project had already caught the attention of Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, who formed a successful working partnership with us and brought our performance into its main house. That successful first year at the Royal Exchange went on to become the blueprint for how we operate now. Over the next five years we entered into new partnerships and in 2014 we produced our first Liverpool CSF in partnership with the Everyman and Playhouse Theatres.
John Doona sadly passed away in 2014, after a long illness. The team drew from this a renewed sense of purpose and willingly accepted responsibility to preserve and develop his legacy. In 2018 we produced 12 festivals, working with 80 teachers from 54 schools, and over 2200 children participating.
What has changed in the 10 years that the Festival has been running?
The increasing pressure on schools surrounding SATs and ever decreasing budgets has resulted in many schools reducing access to the arts. We work closely with teachers to find ways to make the festival work within the curriculum. Often, the CSF becomes the curriculum for a particular term, linking well to literacy, history and other curriculum areas.
The senior management actively fight against pressure to narrow the curriculum, and they tell us that their pupils reap huge benefits, academically and socially, from engagement with the arts.
‘Our purpose is to unlock Shakespeare, to take him from his glass case, that he may live among us again, so that he may question, challenge and provoke us.’ John Doona, 2012
John was a close friend of Edward Bond, who remains a friend and patron of North West Drama. They shared the belief that the effort required to convince young people that Shakespeare was for them was a worthwhile endeavour. Many people’s first experience of Shakespeare is reading text in secondary school but Drama is Shakespeare’s natural home. This is where the brave new worlds he created are revealed to us, where his deeply human characters are driven to ‘glorious or terrible moments of illumination’, as John put it.
What are some of the challenges of doing Shakespeare with young people?
Resetting children’s perceptions of Shakespeare is one of the biggest, something which other organisations are also working on, such as the Shakespeare Schools Foundation.
For us, this means it’s vital to consider how we present the narratives, in order to ensure that deep exploration of characters and situations is what drives the drama. Shakespeare’s language is beautifully rich and we certainly don’t shy away from using his words, but striking the right balance between text and drama form is crucial.
Teacher confidence is another challenge, seeing it develop never fails to amaze me. We want teachers to leave their INSET feeling inspired and ready to start. When they deliver it to their classes they have experienced it personally and understand its purpose.
And the rewards?
We regularly hear of children who struggle academically finding a new sense of confidence through the project. Last year, one of our schools in Salford had an author visit for the day. The author took to Twitter to express his amazement at a Year 5 boy who had bounded down the corridor to retell Hamlet’s final act to him. I was recently told that one secondary school had mentioned that they were always able to tell which pupils had come from a CSF school, because they start with a striking sense of ownership of Shakespeare. I love to think of them telling their friends how cool Shakespeare is while in the playground.
What skills and experiences are you hoping to develop in young people and teachers?
Clear themes emerged from our recent evaluation research. Young people said the project raised their aspirations and increased their enjoyment of learning and school after taking part. They reported increased confidence and improved wellbeing.
Teachers said that pupils seemed more confident and less anxious and had increased their engagement with the arts. Many participants have never been to a theatre before, but all said they wanted to go again. Our core aim has always been to support the wellbeing of all participants.
Teachers who participate regularly fed back that it has had a profound impact on their pedagogy. Our research told us that the project significantly increased teachers’ confidence around teaching using drama and had increased their likelihood to engage with the arts. Again, many were not regular theatregoers, but almost all said they would definitely return in the near future.
What can Expo attendees expect from North West Drama’s session?
Attendees can expect a compelling and playful workshop experience, which will take them to the very ‘human’ heart of The Tempest. They will be invited to explore the story, characters and language of the play through a process firmly rooted in drama for learning, using a range of accessible and easily transferable techniques that can be applied in other curriculum areas.
Outside of CSF, what work is NWD doing?
Our other major project is ‘Speech Bubbles’, a drama-based intervention for children in KS1 for communication, confidence and wellbeing. From each school, 20 children are referred to the programme. They work in groups of 10 with a drama practitioner and a member of school staff over 24 weeks. We offer the project to schools in Salford, Stockport and Trafford, in partnership with Peoplescape Theatre. We are part of a wider consortium of ‘Speech Bubbles’ organisations in Greater Manchester which also includes M6 Theatre in Rochdale and Oldham Theatre Workshop. The project originated from London Bubble Theatre in response to the Bercow Review of Speech and Language Provision in 2008. The programme is currently part of a clinical research trial funded by the Education Endowment Fund’s ‘Learning About Culture’ programme, which is attempting to discover the value of the arts to education.
How can teachers get involved in CSF?
Recruitment is now open. Primary schools in the north west of England can register interest by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or visiting northwestdramaservices.co.uk.