Richard Woolfenden studies Romeo and Juliet at the reconstructed Globe Theatre and, below, Heather Neill meets its director.
Have you got a pencil?" asked Patrick Spottiswoode, director of Globe Education. We groaned and laughed at this teacherism and got into role. "No. Is a pen all right?" answered one teacher, in a student-like way. The ice was breaking.
Forty three English, drama and special needs teachers from across the country had travelled to the recreated Globe Theatre in Southwark, south London, for a day's Inset on Romeo and Juliet at key stage three, the first of three such days.
The day was packed. Most participants were very clear about what they wanted from the experience. Tricia Lucas, a special educational needs co-ordinator, is supporting key stage 3 English this year and has found that "drama is the best way into Shakespeare for students with learning difficulties." She, like most participants, was on a "search and steal" mission for new ideas for teaching Shakespeare.
Right from the beginning we were encouraged to explore how Shakespeare's plays would have been put on in the playwright's time and how the recreation of an Elizabethan context can offer an introduction to Shakespeare.
Rosemary Linnell, of Globe Education, began her workshop stressing the importance of treating Romeo and Juliet "as a construct, as a piece of theatre." Central to her approach is the experience that students gain through their exploration of the play, the text itself, rather than approaching Romeo and Juliet as a soap opera, or as a piece of teenage fiction.
Speaking in the first workshop, "Curtain Hook", Rosemary told us: "You have a tremendous advantage over previous secondary teachers of Shakespeare because you've got children coming to your key stage 3 classes who have done key stage 2 history. What does that include? The Tudors and Elizabethan history. It also includes the court, the citizens, the theatre, and Shakespeare's in there. "
Rosemary warned us against pitching our lessons below the level of students who might at least know who Shakespeare was. With this in mind we were thrown into our first activity. We got into roles as masters, workmen and apprentices of London's City guilds on their day off. We were visiting The Curtain Playhouse, north of the Thames, to see a new play called Romeo and Juliet, a new type of tragedy by a man called William Shakespeare.
Fletchers and brasiers, glaziers and cutlers would have strolled past Bysshoppes Gate and across Moor Field towards The Curtain Playhouse (which was more of a bear-baiting pit than a theatre). The workshop transported us back 400 years to when audiences often stood and were frequently bawdy and troublesome. The aim was to get us to imagine what the premi re of Romeo and Juliet would have been like. Seen in this light, the first fight scene, with all its brash innuendo and vulgar puns, becomes a device to seize the attention of the noisy punters. The entrance of the Prince signals the end of the brawl and is also designed to silence the Elizabethan audience, who might well have also been fighting at this stage.
This method of approaching the text helps pupils to appreciate exactly how Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet for the Elizabethan stage. It also provides a theatrical way into teaching. This is not, of course, always as easy as it sounds. Helen Meredith, an English and drama teacher from Kettering, is committed to bringing Shakespeare to life for her students, but was aware of the caution that many English teachers still adopt. "A lot of English teachers haven't got a drama background and understandably have a fear of losing control. However, Shakespeare will only connect with students if we give them some sense of empowerment. Rosemary's workshop really made me think about how important it was for Shakespeare to grab the audience's attention and how the sense of audience shapes the rest of the play. I'll have to see if this works with my 13-year-olds."
The lunchtime Pioneer Laser Disc demonstration had us all spellbound. In association with BBC Shakespeare, the television dramatisations of Macbeth, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Romeo and Juliet have all been transferred to laser disc. Through the ingenious use of bar codes a teacher, or pupil, can access any part of the play at the swipe of a bar-code reader. No more laborious fast-forwarding only to whiz past the scene you wanted. There are bar-codes that take you to all the speeches of your chosen character for study. You can even access the play thematically. Swipe "Fate" and the monitor will bring up all words, phrases and speeches in the scenes related to that theme.
Rebecca McClean, a newly qualified English and drama teacher from Stonehenge School, was impressed. "If we had the money it would be great. My students could explore the text themselves and even put together their own presentation. "
After lunch we came out of Globe Education's headquarters in the Bear Gardens Museum and took a short walk to the Thames.
"It really was a playground of playhouses. You had The Rose, The Hope, The Swan and The Globe." Patrick Spottiswoode gave a brief history of Bankside in the Elizabethan period. We turned a corner and there it was: the almost finished replica of The Globe. Surrounded by modern buildings and cranes it appeared a bit over-shadowed. As we entered the theatre, however, our jaws dropped. "Wow!" "Amazing!". Then an awe-struck silence. The bare green oak timbered giant of a building shone in the September sun. Everything smelt woody. With the sight-seeing over, we were coaxed onto the stage and before you can say, "But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?" we were marching around the stage with our iambic feet.
Sarah Smith, an English and drama teacher from Hove Park School, Sussex, reversed the Shakespearean tradition of boys playing female characters by being the first female Romeo to appear at The Globe. "Being on the Globe stage was daunting because of the sheer size of the space. But now I can go back to school and tell the children that I've acted on the Globe stage."
While on the stage we explored Shakespeare's use of rhyming couplets. Patrick drew our attention to the balcony scene and how Shakespeare makes us believe the scene is going to end through the lovers' use of rhyming couplets, only to tease his audience with Juliet's two reappearances on the balcony. Shakespeare shares the couplets between the lovers thus making their lines accentuate their mutual love.
Juliet: A thousand times good night! (Exit Juliet) Romeo: A thousand times the worse, to want thy light.
To demonstrate the importance of the rhyming couplet in its suggestion of harmony, discord and the closing of a scene, Patrick had edited the whole play into six pages of rhyming couplets. At lightning speed, in two teams, we sped through our renditions of a truncated, and melodramatic, Romeo and Juliet. A group of 80, largely American, tourists on a guided tour sat and watched and burst into spontaneous applause when Juliet stabbed herself. "I hope they don't think we're professionals," whispered one teacher. They might be tourists, I thought, but they were not stupid.
The final workshop was about how to encourage students to memorise small bits of the text so that drama in the classroom is less hampered by reading from the page. Within half an hour a group of 12 teachers had learnt all the lines of an admittedly edited, but exciting amalgamation of the fight scenes in the play. This was a useful exercise, easily copied in the classroom; it was a shame it left some of us in the role of spectators for a while.
The activities over, we sat and discussed with the Globe Education team our response to the day and our hopes and fears about teaching Shakespeare at key stage 3. This was a welcome close to a practical and thought-provoking experience. Many ideas were shared and problems tackled. Chris Chedgey had travelled from Telford and thoroughly enjoyed himself. "The enthusiasm and dynamism of the presenters drew me into the workshops. It was magical being on the Globe Stage, even if we felt a little silly."
Liz Orton had just completed her PGCE and paid for herself to come. "I am still looking for work and I want to keep fresh. A day's Inset at The Globe for Pounds 17 is excellent value."
* Two more Inset days are planned: A Midsummer Night's Dream, November 11 and Julius Caesar, March 16 next year. Globe Education: 0171 620 0202.
Richard Woolfenden is an English teacher in Leytonstone, Waltham Forest.