Bored with the Bard? Then tread the boards

The RSC's campaign to turn young people on to Shakespeare involves getting them to watch and perform his plays, writes Maria Evans.

Stop your average young person in the street, ask them what they think about Shakespeare and "Boring!" will be a fairly common response.

Shakespeare remains the only writer studied by every young person in Britain - but many leave formal education determined never to come into contact with the Bard again.

However, every day I see evidence of Shakespeare transforming the lives of young people and their teachers.

So what turns some people on to our national dramatist while others are left cold? Last year, the Royal Shakespeare Company worked on a project with young people at risk of exclusion in Birmingham. As it ended, students were asked for their responses. One lad wrote: "Wow, I can do Shakespeare!"

The thing that had changed his mind was performing Shakespeare himself and seeing the plays performed. That is what turns young people on.

Way back in 1908 the English Association recognised the danger of placing too great an emphasis on reading Shakespeare in the classroom, rather than treating the plays as pieces of drama. The debate about how we should study Shakespeare and whether it should remain compulsory has continued ever since.

Last year the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority initiated English 21, a "national conversation" on the future of English. English 21 - now renamed Taking English forward - concluded that Shakespeare should remain a mandatory part of the National Curriculum, but also agreed that a debate should continue, led by the RSC, investigating innovative and successful ways to teach Shakespeare.

That is one of the main reasons why the company is launching a major national campaign looking at the way Shakespeare is taught, studied and assessed in our schools. It aims to bring about change so that all young people have a positive experience at school.

We think this can be achieved by creating greater opportunities for all young people to enjoy and understand Shakespeare's plays as performance texts. For me, that means getting three things right. First, we want greater training and support for teachers, many of whom have never been given the confidence and skills to teach Shakespeare as a performance text.

Second, we think that opportunities should exist for students to explore the plays through theatre-based approaches, for example, giving young people access to at least one live performance of a Shakespeare play during their school career. And finally, we want to explore alternative ways of assessing student understanding of Shakespeare's plays.

I am not suggesting that all teaching of Shakespeare be theatre-based. But I believe passionately that all teaching should include some theatre-based activities. A script on the page tells only half the story - unlike a novel.

Tackling Hamlet, say, is not quite as unfamiliar as reading a music score, but there are similarities. Yet we would not dream of asking even our most talented young people to engage only with a music score. We would want them to hear the music as well. With a play you need that added dimension - to see it, to do it.

Theatre-based approaches can adapt Shakespeare's plays for any age and any ability. The RSC has worked with primary schools and pupils with special educational needs. They can be introduced to the plays long before prejudices have set in that suggest Shakespeare might be too hard for them.

Exploring the plays through theatre gives children an effective understanding of action, of characters' feelings, and of the dynamic between characters. There are clues in the text that only become apparent when you get up and "do" a scene.

It is not just teaching and learning: assessment also needs urgent attention. Current assessment relies entirely on student performance in written exams, which does little to encourage theatre-based approaches. At key stage 3, students are only required to study two scenes of a play. Not only does this mean that they are studying the same scenes over and over again, but they approach them in isolation, without the wider context of the play. Coming up with alternative means of assessment - such as introducing a practical element to exams - is a key component of our campaign.

We also want to change how we work. We are developing a project where actors take edited versions of Shakespeare out to schools, and perform them without set or lights in a school hall or gym. We are also redeveloping our main theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon to improve the quality of experience, particularly for first-time theatregoers. And, to coincide with the campaign, we have just launched our Learning and Performance Network, which will provide sustained support for teachers and give even greater opportunities for young people to engage with Shakespeare through performance.

Change on this scale cannot be effected overnight and the RSC is only a small part of the solution. There is much to be done and we want to engage with teachers across the country over the next year to help us shape our action plan.

But our starting point is a belief that only in treating Shakespeare's plays as drama can we ever hope to connect with the next generation.

Maria Evans is director of learning at the Royal Shakespeare Company

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