Will power; Summer School
Shakespeare needn't be boring - the play's the thing that'll turn kids into lovers of the Bard.
Thursday 28 August 1997
When Steve Gray's colleagues at his Cardiff school heard about his midsummer plans they wondered why he was going to sacrifice a week of his holidays to work. When they saw the details, they called him a "jammy bastard". Charming. But courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and sponsors Allied Domecq, this is very classy in-service training indeed.
The students are selected English and drama specialists from schools and sixth-form colleges all over the country - and they are already Shakespeare enthusiasts to a man. Because the course is over-subscribed, it is now selective and, according to Wendy Greenhill, head of education at the RSC, the organisers hope to influence teachers who can go back and influence their colleagues. The aim of the course is to immerse them in practical approaches to Shakespeare which will make the plays accessible to children of all abilities.
To that end they work hard and get the best. On a steamy Monday morning, participants were still feeling the physical effects of the previous day's vigorous acting workshops. But they listened enraptured and uncomplaining for almost three hours to Professor Peter Thomson of Exeter University as he brought Elizabethan stage practice to life. Over the following few days they worked with actors, directors, designers and voice experts from the company discussing plays and exploring methods of working with groups.
On the final day they looked forward to meeting the RSC's artistic director Adrian Noble. And every night there were good seats at the theatre - Cymbeline, Camino Real, Hamlet, The Spanish Tragedy and Much Ado About Nothing. "Wonderful," said Rita Foster from Thornlea School in Bolton, hardly able to believe her luck. "And so relaxing without the kids to supervise, the head-count in, the head-count out ..."
Others reminisced darkly about errant pupils for whom Shakespeare has not always proved a riveting experience, including the group, previously instructed about lively Elizabethan audience reaction at the original Globe, who organised a Mexican wave during a boring production of Macbeth.
These teachers know that for some children the text of Shakespeare's plays is always going to present a linguistic problem. But they do not accept that this means that anyone should be excluded. A theatre approach, which sees the text for what it originally was - a play script open to interpretation, manipulation and even improvisation - reveals all sorts of possibilities for making Shakespeare come alive in the classroom.
"The great weakness schools have in dealing with Shakespeare is that we can never decide whether he should be taught in English or in drama," says Ian Sparkinson, from Sidcot School. "You still meet Shakespeare specialists who say that they know nothing about drama. The great thing about this course is that they make us do things ourselves. They show us that the text is merely the blueprint for doing."
For Wendy Greenhill this is the nub of the argument. She spends much of her time going out into schools for the RSC and says that in her experience it is often the most difficult children who respond best to drama. But the approach has to be an active one.
This year, for the first time, the teachers on the course will return to Stratford for a long weekend next term to discuss how well they have been able to convert their experience into effective classroom work. "What we're trying to do is bring together theatre practice, academic rigour and educational practice. We push and push these people and we need to know we're being effectiven
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