The complete works

17th March 2000 at 00:00
Fancy hiring the Royal Shakespeare Company for a whole week? They'll turn your school into a theatre and charge you pound;38,000. It sounds daunting, but two schools have risen to the challenge. Heather Neill reports from behind the scenes

Elizabeth Ferguson says, with a glint in her eye, "I'm a risk-taker. If you don't take risks, you miss opportunities." As head of Humphry Davy school in Penzance, on the first day of a visit by the Royal Shakespeare Company, she knows what she's talking about.

The RSC's touring department is nothing like the old travelling theatre companies which might drop in to a school for an afternoon, make do with the available facilities and move on. The production of The Taming of the Shrew, on the road in the UK and abroad until May, will be experienced in sports halls and community centres in exactly the same way as it has been in Stratford and London. For the RSC takes a complete theatre with it, including a stage, raked seating, full lighting rig, sound system, costumes and props.

Wonderful as this is, especially in areas far from the main urban centres, it is, inevitably, expensive. It costs something like pound;38,000 for a week's residence and, not surprisingly, few schools feel they can cope with the commitment. But this year two have risen to the challenge. As well as Humphry Davy, Darton high school near Barnsley is on the itinerary.

It's February 29, and the final touches are being put in place in Penzance for tonight's performance, the first of five. Every one of the tickets - almost 3,000 of them - has been sold, with the help of the director of the local Acorn theatre who took on box office duties in return for some publicity. In the school office, administrator Linda Glazebrook is surrounded by dozens of bags of coins, the float for programme and bar sales. She and her colleagues have just printed lists of sponsors, headed by Prince Charles and including parents and the Queen's Hotel on the promenade, and inserted one in each RSC programme. One of the mothers is arranging flowers. Displays of beautifully presented work by Year 9 on The Shrew, Shakespeare, his life and times, are being moved from the library to the route between the main door and the theatre. For theatre it now is - a dark and magic place, the floor covered in black carpet, set and exit signs in place. In the green room-cum-coffee bar (on ordinary days the gym) a freezer full of ice-creams is in place. But there is no time to rest on laurels.

Colin Lancastle is the school's site manager, in charge of maintenance and caretaking. Luckily he is also an electrician and is qualified to test the extra emergency lights that have been installed. Transforming a school into a public venue, even though parts of the building already meet health and safety rules because they are let for meetings and community events, requires an enormous amount of planning.

Direction signs, extra lighting in areas such as toilets, sufficient car parking space and, above all, fire precautions are all on Colin's list. He will be on hand throughout the week in case there is an emergency during a performance. If there is a fire, an announcement will have to be made and the ushers - supervised students - trained to react correctly, will evacuate the theatre. The school bells will be silenced. And, of course, all arrangements have to be inspected by the local authority before the public is allowed to enter.

Every time a theatre plans to mount a performance a licence has to be applied for. That is the case in the RSC's own theatres - and Humphry Davy is one now, so an entertainments licence has been obtained for bar and stage. The extra large supply of electricity needed for the lighting grid will remain in place. The forecourt of the school, which had to be reinforced for building taking place later in the year, was prepared early by the council to take the five huge RSC trailers. Colin has thought of everything - down to ordering extra large supplies of toilet paper. But some things cannot be planned for. Wardrobe bring a washing machine with them to launder costumes. This has been taken into account, but here it is and the school taps don't fit. Colin has to get some new ones installed instantly.

Like everyone else he is calm. There is a buzz of excitement, but also a sense that normal life must go on as far as that is possible. "We have to remember what we are, a school," says Colin. The department most disrupted is PE and games. Kate Finch who runs it is taking lessons in a church hall all week. "With a good grace," she insists.

It was in March or April last year that David Brierley, retired general manager of the RSC, happened to see the sports hall at Humphry Davy, an 11-16 comprehensive with 800 on roll. He thought it might make a suitable venue and the juggernaut of organisation was set going.

In the middle of preparations, in September, the school was visited by Ofsted; it seems that nobody blinked. Things were going pretty well, after all: there's a positive ethos among staff and pupils, exam results are improving, an extension was opened last year and, for the first time, everyone was on the same site, which allowed for the development of mentoring schemes and the appointment of key stage co-ordinators. These systems, especially the tradition of people taking responsibility but working in a team, have proved invaluable in the mammoth pre-RSC effort.

Elizabeth Ferguson is versatile: on the Tuesday morning in question she is teaching her regular English lesson, visitors notwithstanding. Classroom contact is a priority both for her and her two deputies, Rob Benzie and John Pollard. But she also takes a turn at teaching a drama class, organises children to be interviewed and photographed, supports a new teacher, gently ticks off a miscreant and makes sure that everybody who should get a credit in this article will be mentioned.

First is John Pollard. He has been in charge of the school side of Operation RSC from the beginning while Elizabeth has concentrated on negotiations with the company and attempted to raise sponsorship. She says - and she regards it as a strength - that she has no idea about the minutiae of different teams' procedures. John says that about half the 46 staff were directly involved, running teams for the "get in get out" (the building and dismantling of the theatre under direction from the RSC's tour manager, Nick Chesterfield, and his staff), car parking, stage crew, security, manning the RSC shop, bars and ice-cream sales and so on.

Most of these began meeting around Christmas, but John was already making plans. He visited Ilfracombe school, the nearest one with experience of playing host to the RSC, and took their advice. Soon, a horrible truth dawned. The RSC's fee is pound;32,500, but VAT has to be paid on top. Schools don't normally pay VAT, but this time there was no escape. Business plans had to be redrawn.

Sponsorship is not easily come by in Cornwall - Darton, in a busier part of the country, has been luckier - but some pound;5,000 was eventually raised, Penwith district council provided pound;1,000 and there were some gifts in kind, notably four kegs of beer. The rest of the money will come from ticket sales.

The RSC advises on this as it does on all aspects of the visit. For instance, it asks the school to provide a certain number of helpers for the get-in. Former pupils, the two deputy heads and a parent or two helped with the transformation late into Monday night and started again in the morning. On Saturday they will need to work through until about 4am to reverse the process.

What are the benefits? Rosie Woollard, head of English, has seen groaning children turn into enthusiastic Shakespeare experts in anticipation of the event; Jenni Gilbert, head of drama, will use an RSC workshop as the basis for a new 15-minute piece to be performed in a competition at Plymouth. The visit is a community event, making the local television news and involving all kinds of people beyond the two local sixth-form colleges and several other schools.

Would Elizabeth Ferguson do it all again? "Definitely," she says. "It will be easy next time."

Meanwhile Maureen Wood, governor and fund-raiser at Darton, is all ready for curtain-up next week (March 21). A sponsorship drive brought in between pound;10,000 and pound;12,000. The school has also received pound;1,500 from Yorkshire Arts and pound;1,000 from an anonymous donor. Barnsley Building Society is taking the year 6 pupils from a local fire-damaged school as a treat as all the school's funds are going into replacing books and equipment at the moment.

The administration has been handled by two performance management students from Bretton college as part of their degree. All the tickets are sold, and on Monday morning Nick Chesterfield and the five trailers will be heading from Ebbw Vale to Darton ready for the next get-in.

Would Maureen Wood do it all again? "Yes. Every year, if it was up to me."

Schools wanting to be considered as RSC tour venues should contact the touring department by e-mail: The RSC maintains a website at

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