Education manager for the Shakespeare Schools Foundation, Stuart Rathe, takes us through the successes of the huge Shakespeare Schools Festival, and what delegates can expect from the SSF’s session at the Music & Drama Education Expo | London in February
The Shakespeare Schools Foundation (SSF) is a cultural education charity which uses Shakespeare to give young people the confidence to take on new challenges, to overcome fears and to and new horizons. My job as education manager is brilliant: I get to design curriculum schemes of work for the teaching of Shakespeare at primary, secondary and special schools, devise and deliver in-school pupil workshops, and assist my colleagues with the running of the world’s largest youth drama festival: the Shakespeare Schools Festival.
The Shakespeare Schools Festival sees 1,000 schools perform an abridged Shakespeare production in 136 theatres up and down the country. It’s non-competitive and it brings whole communities into theatres.
I know this because, prior to joining SSF, I was a teacher director myself. I participated in the festival with my Year 6 classes for _ ve consecutive years, watching them tackle ridiculously silly comedy sequences in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and intense Danish tragedy in Hamlet. If you think that 10-year-old children couldn’t possibly ‘get’ Shakespeare then just spend a few minutes in an SSF rehearsal room and you’ll see that the Bard’s timeless stories are as relevant and engaging to today’s school children as they were to 16th-century groundlings at the Globe. My rehearsal room was usually either full of raucous laughter (cue 10-year-old Mark strutting his yellow-stockinged stuff as Malvolio to Right Said Fred’s I’m Too Sexy) or unbearably moving scenes (witness 11-year-old Millie’s appeal to the Plebeians over the body of Julius Caesar as she discovered ‘the most unkindest cut of all’).
I was recently lucky enough to work with another teacher director as he readied his SSF production of Macbeth at the Contact Theatre, and prepared for an SSF flashmob at the Music & Drama Education Expo in Manchester.
Our flagship festival
The festival story starts with Shakespeare: The Animated Tales, 30-minute animations broadcast on the BBC and S4C in the early 1990s. The very _ rst Shakespeare Schools Festival was made up of just eight secondary schools, using the Animated Tales’ scripts at The Torch Theatre, Milford Haven. Fast forward 17 years and that seedling is a mighty oak: it holds the Guinness World Record for the most Shakespeare performances at the same time, and has had 280,000 young participants so far.
Teachers register their pupils to perform, and receive training on how to direct their Shakespeare play, abridged scripts and associated resources. Pupils get to meet another cast at their Company Workshop, working with expert facilitators to tweak and _ ne tune their shows in readiness for their big night on the professional stage. In addition to improving literacy, young people gain vital life skills, such as collaboration, empathy, aspiration and confidence. It’s a transformative experience and one that makes Shakespeare accessible to everyone, taking his stories from page to stage for young people of different ages and backgrounds.
The Scottish Play in Eccles
‘When you durst do it – THEN you were a man!’ SSF’s Kate Hopewell is directing 10- year-old Nancy (Lady Macbeth) as she bawls ferociously at Ruby (Macbeth) across the school hall. The story might be 400 years old, but they have no difficulty bringing these archetypal characters to life.
Meanwhile, under the watchful eye of teacher director Peter Webster, young Andre (an alumnus of the 2016 Shakespeare Schools Festival) is resurrecting his Brutus: a rhetorical tour de force in which he explains the actions of himself and his co-conspirators for the murder of Julius Caesar.
These youngsters from St Mary’s Primary in Eccles are preparing a flashmob piece for the Music & Drama Education Expo in Manchester. Just a couple of days later, it’s planned that Andre will burst into a room of delegates and address them as Brutus: ‘As Caesar loved me, I weep for him. As he was valiant, I honour him. But, as he was ambitious, I slew him.’
On the day itself, the room is so jam-packed that Andre can’t open the doors to make his entrance. Unflustered and entirely composed, he simply waits for the first delegates to leave the room. In the cavernous, high-ceilinged hallway, he bellows out his first lines: ‘Romans, Countrymen and Lovers…’ and the entire hotel floor seems to fall silent to listen.
Just as this assault on their senses nears its conclusion, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth appear, arguing about the killing of Duncan from opposite sides of a gangway.
It takes real guts to perform in a bustling and noisy space, packed full of over 400 delegates, but these youngsters take it in their stride.
A few weeks later, I’m lucky enough to watch their technical and dress rehearsal at the Contact Theatre in Manchester, ready for their festival performance night. It’s a wonderful show. I spot some movement and choreography choices that director Webster has taken from our teacher director workshops, and some incredible visual storytelling (such as red ribbons dangling from daggers to signify Duncan’s flowing blood). The performances are great: a true ensemble committed to telling a remarkable story. I keep interrupting Webster to tell him how great the show is. When I point out that one of the narrators has a particularly engaging delivery, Webster proudly tells me that for the young boy English is an Additional Language. Backstage, Banquo beams as I tell him that his command of Shakespeare’s language made it sound like he was speaking in entirely modern vernacular.
As I say goodbye to Webster and his company at the Contact Theatre and wish them well for their evening show, I’m reminded of the pride I felt every year as an SSF teacher director and the incredible sense of achievement felt by each and every cast member at the end of a successful performance. And perhaps Webster is already thinking – as I did every year – ‘What play shall I tackle next year, and how soon can I register for the 2018 festival?’
A take-away from Expo
At the Expo, Kate Hopewell and I delivered a session called ‘Be Not Afraid of Greatness’, designed to demystify Shakespeare. We used a visualisation exercise to help unlock Shakespeare’s heightened language, and investigated iambic pentameter. We’ll be delivering another session at the London Expo at Olympia Central on 22–23 February 2018!
Here’s a classroom take-away to help you show pupils how an iambic line works. Ask 10 students to stand in a line, and give them one word each to say aloud: We – stress – the – words – we – want – the – world – to – hear.
Ask them to deliver the line, one word after the other. Then, ask the odd-numbered people to say their word loudly and strongly, with a stamp of the foot. Tell the even numbers people to remain neutral.
The result is: WE-stress-THE-words- WE-want-THE-world-TO-hear.
Students will notice that it just doesn’t ‘sound right’ but if we reverse the stresses so the even numbered people stamp and the odds remain neutral, it becomes: We-STRESS-the-WORDS-we- WANT-the-WORLD-to-HEAR.
Your pupils now understand iambic pentameter: 10 syllables, with the stress falling on alternate syllables: De DUM de DUM de DUM de DUM de DUM.
They should be wary of using a singsong rhythm, as it won’t sound natural. In fact, there are an infinite number of choices available for verse speaking with iambic pentameter. Working with a regular iambic line, encourage pairs of pupils to pick a word to stress and then choose a gesture for the stressed word. Watch paired performances and spotlight the different choices, discussing the effect each one has on the meaning of the line and on our interpretation of the character speaking.
Finally, discuss other effects that can vary rhythm in a line besides stressing, such as adding in a pause, speeding up/slowing down, raising/lowering volume, and so on.
Shakespeare Schools Foundation will present ‘Be not afraid of greatness: approaching Shakespeare’s language’ at Music & Drama Education Expo | London on 23 February 2018. Book your free tickets.