Set for action

12th November 2004 at 00:00
A performance of Romeo and Juliet took over a school's entire grounds when it collaborated with a theatre company. The educational effects were equally extensive, as Heather Neill reports.

There were words everywhere - in the trees, on banners and in the mouths of the students of Gosden House special school in Surrey. And all the words were Shakespeare's.

A production of Romeo and Juliet involving the whole school - mixed primary, girls' secondary - was taking place on a summer day in all parts of the leafy school grounds. It was the culmination of a good half-term's work and part of a relationship between the school and Shakespeare's Globe theatre.

The students have a range of learning disabilities, including language and communication problems, but you'd scarcely guess so from the Romeo and Juliet DVD in which participants glow with confidence, commitment and pleasure. Headteacher Jon David had met the Globe's head of education, Patrick Spottiswoode, at a conference in 2002 and they soon embarked on a three-year collaboration which has included training sessions for Globe education practitioners (GEPs) led by Gosden House staff.

The practitioners are actor-teachers used to leading workshops. Soon six of them were making regular weekly trips to Gosden House to work on scenes from Romeo and Juliet and, as the performance approached, they stayed for a week.

A LEA school serving the whole county, Gosden House is partly residential.

Fiona Dockrell, head of creative arts at the school (and, incidentally winner of innovative teacher of the year in the South-east region of this year's Teaching Awards), and second deputy head Sue Bailey took up Globe ideas and initiated a number of activities to go alongside the main project.

Fiona Banks, head of learning and teaching practice at Shakespeare's Globe, believes that "putting on a play is a useful way of approaching learning across the curriculum, not just in English or drama" and says that many of the ideas that came up at Gosden could be copied by schools not lucky enough to be able to work directly with the Globe.

For instance, one of the scenes in the specially-edited script involved Friar Laurence in his herb garden, so a number of the primary children grew different herbs and gave them to people on performance day. The courtyard in which this scene took place is small, so the "monks" repeated their scene half a dozen times. Others of the six scenes were repeated twice for different audiences (labelled Montagues or Capulets), led around the grounds by GEPs. Juliet's presumed death was a moving installation in which a student lay still on a draped bed as the audience filed past.

For the final scene, everyone met in the school's garden where the deaths of the young lovers were played with heart-rending conviction. All kinds of opportunities for artwork were explored, tee-shirts designed and printed on a theme of love, banners decorated with sunflowers unfurled from the windows.

Some students made badges, others mobiles, yet others recorded music.

Creative writing included songs, poems and factual accounts of the experience. Marketing opportunities were seized on too, with one group learning to make pizzas at PizzaExpress and selling them in the "market" before the performance, along with handmade carnival masks, Romeo and Juliet biscuits and scrolls of Shakespeare "parchment".

Fiona Banks found that speech therapists reported a dramatic improvement among students after the performance. Jon David says "Shakespeare used to be in a box; now he is part of our lives" and recalls coming across two language-disordered children in a corridor practising their lines, simply speaking Shakespeare.

Later in the summer Fiona Dockrell adapted The Tempest and, with the help of GEPs put it on in an intensive week with some of the younger children.

The Romeo and Juliet experience may be repeated one day, but not yet.

Meanwhile, another kind of special needs work continues at the Globe. It began when teacher Keith Park went to a performance of Henry V at Shakespeare's Globe in 1997. He was transfixed by the rhythmic drumming of staves on the wooden stage. What a brilliant, gigantic resonance board! Now, he runs regular sessions on that same stage. In those days, one of his pupils, a deaf-blind girl called Nicole, used to lie on resonance boards at school as a means of gaining sensory experience.

Keith contacted the Globe's education department who said yes to a proposal to bring 12 severely handicapped teenagers along to do a version of Macbeth. Nicole lay on the stage and responded to the chanting and stamping.

This term Keith is working with two schools, each coming along for eight weekly workshops. Kay Wallace, class teacher of the group from Charlton School in south London, is delighted that her PMLD students have a meaningful way of approaching Shakespeare. Each week she invites a group from another school to join her students, all aged 12 to 16 and all wheelchair users.

Arranged in a circle, the students join in as they can, enthusiastically stamping, clapping, using switch-operated sound devices, signing - as Keith leads them and their carers in a game involving shouting our names, then a whole-hearted rendition of an Egyptian folk tale followed by scenes from Othello. Arabic words are introduced along the way in acknowledgement of the Globe's Shakespeare and Islam season. The whole story is summed up in the extracts and, for some, understanding the narrative will come later.

But everyone can enjoy the language and its rhythms.

The visually exciting, resonant Globe environment is itself stimulating for Kay Wallace's students. Besides, "they love the interaction and it's nice for them to meet children from another school".

Fiona Banks says that when people ask about special needs at the Globe they should be specific: "It is important to know what they need. Special needs can mean so many things."

* Keith Park's own (not Globe) version of A Midsummer Night's Dream can be downloaded free from

www.shakespeares-globe.orgeducation. Tel: 020 79021433

* Next week in TES Teacher: 6-page drama Subject Focus

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