A visit to Shakespeare's birthplace is just the thing to help students learn about his life and get the most from his plays, says Jenny Coates
Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare's birthplace, has always made the most of the Bard's legacy. His family's houses are open to the public and staffed by knowledgeable guides; the gardens and parks where he wandered as a boy are fully restored and maintained; and there is a wealth of information, theatre and activity available to visitors.
This year may bring more school groups than ever before, with the opening of Shakespearience, an exhibition and workshop centre in the newly renovated Waterside Theatre. A Year 10 group from Cheney School in Oxford booked an hour's workshop on their GCSE text, Romeo and Juliet, and entrance to the multimedia exhibition.
The exhibition runs every hour, and visitors can just turn up at allotted times. In an introductory film, Quentin Willson tells of Shakespeare's early days in Stratford, and his path to fame. Visitors are then ushered into a mock-Elizabethan theatre, where holographic actors, surround sound and blasting winds bring some of his best-known lines and characters to life. The Cheney students agreed that the exhibition was worth seeing, but said the workshop was their favourite part of the day.
A "neutral space" behind the exhibition houses Carpe Diem Theatre, specialists in educational workshops for young people. Sarah and Clayton Doherty, who run the company, are very excited about the feedback from teachers on their new workshop programme. "Classes can choose one of the prepared workshops or we can arrange one to meet the needs of a specific project. At key stages 3 and 4, teachers may be looking in depth at a specific play for GCSE or SATs exams, but primary teachers often want something more cross-curricular - if they're doing a project on the Tudors, for example. We can fit in with different teachers' requirements."
With a few warm-up games to get the students moving round the room and working together, Sarah and Clayton soon have everyone talking animatedly about Romeo and Juliet, imagining the story in a modern context. In small groups, students devise a series of "freeze frames" of the fight scene that opens the play. They perform their snapshots to the rest of the group, with music from the soundtrack of The Matrix to add atmosphere. "Romeo and Juliet is a great play for all ages to study," says Sarah. "Its themes transcend time. Even primary schoolchildren need very little help to come up with ideas on how to present it."
By the time the hour is up, the group is full of ideas on how the conflict in Romeo and Juliet could be compared to conflicts of today. Sarah is keen to move on to other themes, such as love. "How much you can fit in depends on the group," she says. "Primary children often move on quicker because they aren't so inhibited and don't need much encouragement to improvise and act. At secondary level, drama students tend to move the most quickly. The quicker a group engages, the sooner we can begin looking closely at Shakespeare's language. Two hours is a better length."
Among the Cheney group, those who studied both drama and English seem to enjoy the workshops most. "We already do a lot of improvisation work," they told me. "And we love it."
Sarah agrees that having some practice at performing and improvising is an advantage. "After all, the plays were written to be performed, and that's the quickest way to get to grips with the language," she says. However, those who are studying Shakespeare only for English also seem to enjoy the acting. By the end of the workshop, even the most shy students are really immersing themselves in the characters - the kind of "Shakespearience" that we all want.
ON THE MAP
Shakespearience Waterside Theatre Stratford-upon-Avon CV37 6BA Tel: 01789 293678 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org