Allowing the stage to bring Shakespeare to life

Theatre trips offer far more than a day out of school. Georghia Ellinas, head of learning at Globe Education, explains why the study of the Bard should be both accessible and exciting, and how it can benefit what is taught in the classroom.

How can schools make the study of Shakespeare relevant, exciting and engaging for young people reared on the high octane diet of X-Box games and programmes like Game of Thrones? The answer is simple: take them to see a performance of a Shakespeare play so they can hear the works spoken, observe how characters interact with one another and see how the themes are developed through the design of the set, the director’s concept of the play, the props and the music.

The answer is simple, but achieving this is not easy. Planning, organising and supervising a school theatre trip requires a lot of work on the part of schools and with everything else that is demanded of them, teachers, quite naturally, run out of the energy and steam to do this. Those who do, do it because they know it makes a real difference to the way young people engage with Shakespeare.

The 20,000 London and Birmingham secondary students who came to see our production of Twelfth Night for free this spring as part of our annual Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank project may not have seen a play by Shakespeare or even been to the theatre before, but they instantly recognised and engaged with the story of Viola and her struggle to make a life for herself in a strange and foreign land. Some of them may have had that experience themselves and many, most certainly, will have heard it from news reports about the plight of migrants over the last few years. The audiences may have changed, but the characters Shakespeare created and the themes he explored in his plays are as relevant to 21st century audiences as they were to the Elizabethans.

Accessible learning
To support our production of Twelfth Night we delivered training for teachers and over 120 in-school workshops for students which encouraged them to engage with Malvolio, one of Shakespeare’s more unlikeable characters, and to explore how he is treated by others in the play. It is hard to warm to Malvolio with his pompous behaviour and dismissive treatment of Cesario, but it is also hard not to feel disturbed by what happens to him at the hands of the drunken Sir Toby Belch and his partners in crime. What is dressed up as a harmless prank is in fact cruel and systematic bullying. Again, a theme that our audience understood and possibly may have suffered from or even taken part in, themselves. Seeing this theme brought to life on the stage, is a powerful way to remind ourselves of our own behaviour and the impact it has on others.

We are fortunate to receive funding from Deutsche Bank to create this annual production for schools which then allows us to offer free tickets to all London and Birmingham state secondary students. Many schools bring entire year groups which is something they could not do in a commercial season as many theatres restrict the number of school groups they will admit to each matinee. This year, we opened up the selling of subsidised tickets to primary schools; 23 primary schools brought over 1,000 eleven year-olds to see the play and they loved it.

Over the last 10 years of the project, over 137,000 students have experienced Shakespeare at the Globe for free and it has changed the way many of them see Shakespeare and how they see themselves – they become theatre goers and that can be a transformational experience for them and their families. One student told me that she was so enthusiastic about her trip to see a play at the Globe that her father decided that they would all go as a family – a first for him and for them.

The impact of the stage
There are many reasons for ensuring theatre trips are part of a student’s experience of school: it allows students and teachers to be together beyond the expectations, confines and hierarchies of the classroom; it demonstrates to students that they are valued and trusted to represent their school; and it enriches and extends students’ understanding of the plays they are studying.

There is even more reason to make that trip to see a play by Shakespeare. The study of Shakespeare has been a statutory requirement since the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1988 and the revised curriculum of 2015 has specified the study of two entire plays (not extracts) between the ages of 11 – 14 and one play to be examined at GCSE. Seeing a performance ensures that the requirement to study a whole play is met, even if the students have not read every word of the play. There is no need to read every single word, but there is a need to understand the whole play. Seeing the play in one go, instead of watching a play in fits and starts in English lessons, is also important. The power of the story is not lost and the emotional impact of what happens to the characters is not dissipated when the bell goes.

Not all children have parents who can afford or who are able to take their child to the theatre, so schools are in the best position to address that inequity. In many cases parents have never been to the theatre themselves so do not see it as part of their child’s upbringing. Schools can break that cycle of non‑participation by making every child a theatre goer. That is what Sir Robin Wales, the Mayor of Newham, has ensured for students in his borough in the east end of London.

He wanted to ensure that every child in a Newham school had the chance to visit a museum, an art gallery, to play a musical instrument and to go to the theatre. That is why he has paid for over 6,000 students from Newham Local Authority maintained secondary schools to attend a performance of a play by Shakespeare at Shakespeare’s Globe as part of our Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank project. This is a visionary policy and one that redresses the lack of opportunity that many families face.

Involving everyone
A recent addition to our performance offer for schools has been interactive storytelling for pupils from the ages of five to eleven which take place in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, our exquisite indoor theatre. We believe that by engaging with Shakespeare stories from an early age, students will be more confident when encountering him at secondary school. The children are not passive listeners – we invite them to take part in the storytelling by using their voices and hands to make the storm for The Tempest, they perform in the Mechanicals’ play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and offer advice to Macbeth on his plans to seize the throne – thankfully they always say ‘don’t do it’, but of course he does.

We immerse them in the world of the play and we always use Shakespeare’s language and invite them to speak it too.

Shakespeare has to be one of the most challenging writers that students will encounter as part of their English course, so anything that can make the text more accessible, understandable and enjoyable for students which seeing a play performed does, should be a vital part of their studies. To achieve an A* at GCSE students have to demonstrate original thinking and for those students who are considering studying English Literature at Advanced Level and beyond, or students applying for Oxbridge or medical school, an A* in English is essential.

I have been teaching long enough to have taught the Ordinary Level GCE and my last examination group was filled with sparky sixteen year olds who loved Shakespeare. We went to see three different performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream so that they could consider, compare and contrast the versions and develop their own views about the characters, the themes and how the plays were performed. One visit was in school time and the other two were out of school hours. They all thought it was worth it and they all got top grades in their GCE English Literature. I hope they are all still going to the theatre; I am pretty sure they are and that they will take their children to the theatre when they become parents.

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