Oh brave new world

19th October 2007 at 01:00

Shakespearean plays are helping children with learning difficulties communicate. Stephen Manning reports. Getting children with learning difficulties, and in some cases non- verbal communication, to perform Shakespeare seems quite a challenge, especially when the play is one of the most emotionally vexing in the Bard's canon. But the half-hour performance of Romeo and Juliet by teenagers from John Fielding Community Special School in Boston, Lincolnshire, was entirely in keeping with the school's inclusive ethos.

"I believe that pupils with special needs should get to do the same things as mainstream pupils," says Paula Kirk, assistant head. The school caters for a range of difficulties including autism, with a number of non-verbal pupils.

John Fielding was one of 68 special schools or youth groups among 1,100 schools that participated in this year's Shakespeare Schools Festival in February, performing plays around the country. Seventeen of the school's pupils, aged 12 to 19, were involved, and were taken through a few drama workshops before finally giving performances at a local hall in Boston. It was the school's first experience with drama, but Paula thinks it has lit a candle of creativity.

"The biggest challenge was that they found it hard to show feelings and, of course, that is an integral part of Romeo and Juliet," she says. "We did a lot of work for them to understand that when you're acting, you're not you, you are that character. It took a good two months for this to be understood."

There were a few speaking parts but most of the speech was performed by two narrators. The prologue and epilogue were in sign language, and much of the dramatic information was conveyed in symbols - for example, the Montagues and Capulets were dressed in blue or red, merging to become purple.

The staging was minimal - a small, black boxed-off area for a stage, with Tudor costumes made by parents and staff. But some of the small details were in fact important reference markers for the players. For example, Juliet wore a rose so that they would all be reminded that she was a rose, the delicate beauty of the story

The next Shakespeare Schools Festival takes place in October 2008. See www.ssf.uk.com

RESOURCES

Book - Talkabout: A social communication skills package by Alex Kelly (Speechmark, pound;35.99). Photocopiable workbook that helps raise self- awareness and develops better communication skills with older children and adolescents. www.speechmark.net

Angie Rutter.

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