Making language sing

16th January 2004 at 00:00
Globe Education brings students and adults into contact with writers and their work in exciting ways - and the results are striking, writes Tom Deveson

The south bank of the Thames has always produced fine poetry: The Canterbury Tales begins in the Tabard Inn; John Keats published his first poems as a medical student at Guy's Hospital. And, of course, the wooden walls of a local playhouse once echoed to the words of the greatest writer of all, William Shakespeare.

Patrick Spottiswoode, director of Globe Education, is doing his best to keep this superb tradition alive. He first started working for Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in 1984, before any building existed, before there was even a purposeful hole in the ground. He began on his own, running workshops and seminars for schools and universities, encouraging scholars and actors to bring their skills together - if not always in the same room, then at least in the same frame of mind. Now Globe Education comprises a dynamic team of 17, together with 50 freelance practitioners.

Seventy thousand students of all ages come every year, drawn by the life-changing opportunity to explore Shakespeare's world. They are guided by experts, but are following their own compass.

Patrick Spottiswoode is enthusiastic about the latest venture, a new online sonnets resource: "We commissioned 37 poets to write new sonnets to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Wordsworth's 'Composed Upon Westminster Bridge'. We sought to foster good new writing as well as help young people to experience and perform some of the best of the old."

Writers from Ian Duhig to Ruth Padel answered the challenge, some with quirky adaptations of the poem, others with deep-felt responses to the combination of city, river, sky and bridge as potent symbols of varied human experience. The resource allows us not merely to read their work but, through interviews, to eavesdrop on their creative processes.

"We hear poets talk about inspirations and interpretations," Patrick Spottiswoode says. "But then we took things a stage further. In our Adopt an Actor scheme, students enter into a dialogue with actors preparing to play in the Globe theatre season; here we invited pupils and poets to work together and share their ideas. The emphasis was on experimenting with different approaches to writing within a strict but inviting poetic form."

The results are striking. Annie Onwuta of Charles Edward Brooke School in Lambeth describes how "The sun beams and bangs like a big bass drum".

Christina Woodger of Newstead Wood School in Bromley imagines a bridge seen in an altogether different mood: "Washed with the wave's intense, cathartic sorrow."

This project is not just for children, but for anyone who is excited by a powerful literary theme that's infused by discoveries resulting from the collaboration of older and younger minds and hearts.

Globe Education is not subject to false antitheses between the "timeless" nature of Shakespeare's plays and their contemporary "relevance". Rather, it investigates areas of literature, art, culture and history that have excited lively minds across generations. The topic of British relations with Islam could not be more timely, but it also exercised writers and policy-makers 400 years ago. Next year, as part of a Shakespeare and Islam season, Southwark students will perform Othello on the Globe stage for the annual Our Theatre event.

"Othello gives up his Muslim faith to serve Venice. The story of a Moor who fights for Christian armies against the Turk will provoke challenging work in multi-faith schools," Patrick Spottiswoode says.

"Younger children will look at the importance of handkerchief patterns in Ottoman culture - Desdemona's handkerchief has a vital role in the plot - and discover through cross-curricular work in design and literacy that there are many kinds of 'magic in the web' of this remarkable play."

Globe Education's plans for the next three years should arouse the interest of all English and drama teachers. Patrick Spottiswoode believes that his colleagues, through the interaction of their many kinds of expertise, offer unique opportunities as collaborators: "We can be a catalyst in the way schools encounter Shakespeare. We can help them discover things that neither they nor we knew were there."

Even preparing for SATs can become a pleasure when language catches a spark from the Globe's "muse of fire". A part-time Master of Arts for teachers in English and arts education, to be launched next year, will enable them to find ways of using their interest in art forms and their work with artists to influence what happens in the classroom.

Other in-service training sessions will continue to unite the gifts of professors, performers, poets and practitioners. Close to Patrick Spottiswoode's heart is the department's developing work with special needs pupils. Already Gosden House School in Surrey has hosted a pioneering residency, which culminated in a heart-stopping version of Romeo and Juliet.

Building on this base will be central to Globe Education's work in the next few years. A forthcoming workshop on Othello will be conducted in English, Arabic, and British Sign Language.

One thing is certain: thousands more students will find ways of making language sing and dance, exploring - in the words of Shakespeare's great contemporary, John Marston - "the soul of lively action".

Globe Education's online sonnet resource is available through Globelink, the theatre's subscriber website. For details visit http:shakespeares-globe.orgglobelink

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