Be bold and go for action

1st September 2000 at 01:00
Plays are written to be staged, so hold drama workshops and take your pupils to the theatre, says Sandra Percy.

As an English teacher I have found that there is an expectation among friends, colleagues and parents that I enjoy teaching Shakespeare. Until last year I did not.

Looking back on my own school experiences of Shakespeare I now consider myself very fortunate. I clearly had progressive teachers who firmly believed that Shakespearean plays had been written to be seen and heard so that the audience could appreciate and enjoy the experience, so I was taken to the theatre. They did not believe that the plays should only be critically analysed word by word in a classroom and considered as exam fodder. Subsequently my experience of Shakespeare was, in essence, a dramatic one.

In the light of this, and my decision to acquaint my Secondary 2 class with Macbeth, I found it interesting to read Heather Neill's comments in The TES (September 24, 1999) where she defined education as "to have access to the culture" and, with regard to Shakespeare, "You can get the gist in performing and it can be hugely moving. Theatre can still change a 15 year old's life. It's up to schools to teach us what they need."

I could not agree more.

My decision to introduce my S2 class to Macbeth took account of several factors. First, it is a good story - full of plotting and gore.

Secondly, I had access to various texts which allowed me to differentiate by text as well as by task. I was therefore taking into account current educational practice and the demands of the 5-14 curriculum.

In addition, with the introduction of Level F in August this year I felt that Macbeth would enable one or two of my pupils to use it for writing about texts.

Thirdly, and most importantly for me, the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh was putting on a production of the play with pre- and post-workshops.

Taking all of the above into consideration I felt, and indeed hoped, that my pupils would have not only an educational experience but an inspiring one - and, thankfully, I was right.

Differentiation by text and by task with a class of 30 pupils is extremely hard work. If it had not been for the excellent help of the support for learning staff in my school, I am sure that I would not have been able to manage. Even with their help, I did at times feel like Lady Macbeth: I too became "troubled with thick-coming fancies" which kept me from my rest!

In addition, although I showed a video to stimulate the class, I was still very concerned about the fact hat the pupils' experiences were primarily classroom-based.

However, all was not lost. I was made much happier by the arrival of Colin Bradie. He was in charge of the pre- and post-production workshops for the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh. He arrived at the school, quite appropriately, on a day of thunder and lightning.

As a teacher of more than 20 years, I have seen many workshops, but none like these. All he needed was a large space, the pupils and above all his passion for the play.

Initially he played games - or so it seemed. The pupils soon lost whatever inhibitions they may have had and became engrossed in their allotted roles. The story became reality: they really were conspiring to kill Macbeth and they had to succeed.

I can remember sitting back mesmerised - and quite jealous. Time does fly when you are enjoying yourself and it was soon over. My class, even the next day, could not stop talking about it. Mr Bradie had communicated his passion to them, and I am so grateful for this.

I must admit to being slightly concerned about our visit to the theatre. For most of my pupils it was their first time in a theatre and I did not know how they would react to what I knew to be a very bold, indeed risky, and innovative production of the play by Kenny Ireland.

My fears were unfounded: they sat in rapt attention. They were stunned by the moving stone walls. They were hypnotised by the background of ever-changing coloured lights. They were enthralled by the words and actions.

At the end of the play, as the tyrant Macbeth hung upside down silhouetted against the backdrop by a dazzling white light, there was literally a sharp intake of breath. He was dead: it was over.

This was clearly a very special time for all of us. With a lot of help I had succeeded in what I had set out to do: I had given my pupils an experience they will not forget. Like me, these pupils now realise that Shakespeare can be educational, but more importantly, enjoyable and inspiring. Heather Neill would be proud: this has changed the lives of my pupils.

Sandra Percy teaches English at Biggar High School, South Lanarkshire. A resource pack on Macbeth is available for pound;4 from the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindley Street, Edinburgh EH3 9AX.The company will perform Romeo and Juliet from October 24-November 18, with an extensive outreach programme for schools. A few workshops are still available. A pack on Romeo and Juliet will be available free to schools attending the show. Contact Steven Small, education manager, tel 0131 229 7404

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