Bite-sized Bard stagings could help to boost grades
Pupils should act out plays - not just watch live performances - to gain a deeper understanding and enjoyment of set English texts, according to the artistic director of a Welsh theatre company.
Kevin Lewis of Theatr Iolo said pupils' grades could improve significantly if they staged their own simple versions of some of the most iconic Shakespearean plays - even on a shoestring budget.
Actors from the company - one of eight touring schools in Wales - have been inspiring teachers to incorporate drama in English lessons.
Their latest production, an hour-long Tempest, is staged with busy teachers and pupils in mind.
The actors deliberately dress down for the performance, as if they are rehearsing, and use simple props to show what can be achieved with limited time and money. The only extra is what Mr Lewis describes as a bit of "fancy lighting" for dramatic effect.
"There are really exciting ways of teaching Shakespeare, but schools don't always use them," said Mr Lewis, who performs in the play.
"I've seen how young people respond to it, and which parts they enjoy and laugh at. Many identified with the monster Caliban.
"We worked hard on the words. You get a sense of the meaning from the sound and the emphasis, even if you don't understand every word."
Mr Lewis said he hoped to give pupils an "experience" of the play without explaining too much.
"The Tempest is a difficult play and some of them (the young people) had no knowledge of it, while some had worked on it in class.
"One teacher explained Shakespeare to her class by saying that it was like studying poetry: you don't understand it at first, but you work on it and, after a few weeks, you start to understand it. There's a sort of music to the words. It's not like EastEnders."
But Mr Lewis is concerned that, as the recession deepens, schools - especially primaries - could cut back on theatre trips.
At a conference this week, the newly formed National Agency of Wales for Theatre for Young People planned to campaign for access to the arts for youngsters.
All eight government-funded theatre companies in Wales are pressing for staged productions to become more entrenched in the curriculum.
SHOESTRING SHAKESPEARE GOES DOWN A STORM
Attempting to reduce one of Shakespeare's most intriguing and difficult plays to one hour was never going to be easy.
But Theatr Iolo does not try to cram every GCSE lesson into the production. Instead, the company gives pupils a flavour of the play.
Using few props - some chairs, bits of cardboard and a microphone - the play is easily performed in a school hall.
The company's three actors, dressed down in jeans and hoodies, enter like sulky teens. But once the play begins, they become animated and take on the characters with gusto.
Much of the hour is taken up with boisterous scenes about Caliban, the monster who thinks the island is rightfully his.
The script has been carefully thought out using a mix of Shakespearean language and modern-day speech.
It is also a highly physical piece, with performers shouting and banging on chairs, encouraging the audience to laugh along.
By contrast, the play's famous poetic passages are whispered gently over a funky soundtrack.
The play leaves its audience desperate for more - the perfect introduction to the Bard for child-length attention spans.