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No labour of luvvies

Reva Klein visits the Globe Theatre and finds the stage being set for educational opportunities.

He's 20 minutes late for the press conference but his apology is so genuine and spoken in such honeyed tones that the audience melts. Actor Robert Powell really knows how to disarm a roomful of impatient hacks, and today is no exception.

The motley crew murmur their forgiveness and then, straightaway, get cracking. "What's your role in the project?" asks one brave soul, kicking off the proceedings which last half an hour. Powell is generous but not patronising, lively but not luvvy. When one reporter has to have his indecipherable question repeated through an interpreter, the veteran of stage and screen for 30 years responds as if this sort of thing happened every day. (And no, he had no tips to offer for playing Macbeth. It was a part he'd never tackled and wished his interviewer, who was facing the part himself, good luck).

The fact that the hacks in question were Year 10 and 11 pupils from 10 schools in the London borough of Southwark, including a school for pupils with severe learning difficulties, was water off a thesp's back. This was a labour of love for Robert Powell who, as one of 50 artistic directors at Shakespeare's Globe, was contributing his time to this year's Globe Education Southwark Project, "Upon this Bank". The annual project is funded by Southwark TVEI, which gives money to the schools, thus enabling them to participate.

To help the young people formulate their questions and get over stage-fright, journalists from the Financial Times, the Globe's neighbour, gave up a morning to gen them up on press conference protocol.

What Robert Powell has to do with Shakespeare, which is what one girl was going to ask, but didn't, is a good question. As a Shakespearean actor, he has things to say about the relevance of the plays for the young burghers of Southwark past and present, about his favourite parts, about the Globe striving to, in the words of one young reporter, "shake off the upper class image" of Shakespeare.

This press conference was just one of a number of participatory activities set up by the Globe to bring local schools to the site - close to Shakespeare's original theatre beside the River Thames. The theatre is being faithfully reconstructed - timbered, thatched and lime-plastered - in a hugely ambitious project masterminded by the late American actor-director Sam Wanamaker. The work will take several years: the building proceeds step by step, stage by stage, as the Pounds 2.5 million needed cannot be raised all at once.

"The Globe is not only about plays," says education director Patrick Spottiswoode. "It's about the building, it's about communication, it's about the community in which the building stands."

For the second year running, these 10 Southwark schools are involved in a cross-curricular project over two terms. This year, the focus is on the history of the Globe and its community. Subjects covered range from leisure and tourism, to modern languages, to environmental studies, to art and design and history.

Through workshops co-ordinated by Globe Education and drawing on the expertise of a range of specialists, pupils work on leaflet and booklet design, newspaper layout and different aspects of the building reconstruction work. One group was taken by actors on a guided history walk, during which they received the appropriate information and learned about the art of presenting facts and details so that they could present the tour themselves. They researched, wrote, designed and made local history brochures for the tourist market.

Other groups, including the special schools, have come to the Globe for construction workshops fitting in with the design and technology curriculum. Hard hats firmly on heads, they have learned how to lay bricks - handmade in Sussex - to do hand-lathe turning and thatching, alongside expert builders and craftsmen. Spottiswoode is keen to develop this work further, particularly with special schools.

Theatre, of course, comes into it. There are to be workshops on text and performing, led by members of the freelance acting staff at the Globe, which will include giving pupils an opportunity to present rehearsed scenes on stage.

For Patrick Spottiswoode, there is no limit to the range of activities that the Globe and Shakespeare's writings can generate. "Shakespeare can be a catalyst for so much more. This is to be a place that is more than just a theatre."

Apart from the workshops, Globe Education, which Spottiswoode runs with development officer Alistair Tallon, is making inroads into other curricular work. With the emphasis on the Tudors in key stage 2 history, the department is looking at creating a schools pack on "Elizabethans at Play" which would be available to any school in the country. Primaries will begin to be involved next year on the theme of "Our Theatre".

Alongside the work with Southwark, Globe Education also works nationally and internationally. Last year, the Hamlet Project worked with 60 schools from the UK, Denmark, Germany and Poland, culminating in some of the European schools performing on a temporary stage in the theatre.

Two years ago, it ran a project in Islington schools, in association with Arsenal Football Club, on helping to give Shakespeare a bit more street cred than the Highbury crowd would usually credit him with.

Patrick Spottiswoode recalls something Sam Wanamaker said a few years ago: "Patrick, you gotta make sure you work locally. And you gotta work nationally. And you gotta work internationally, too." If Wanamaker, who died just over a year ago, could see what Globe Education was doing, he would probably be a happy man.

Shakespeare's Globe: Tel 0171 620 0202

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