Shakespeare and the Tudors : a resources special

5th April 2013 at 01:00
Shakespeare's works should be experienced the way the Bard intended - on stage, writes Patrick Spottiswoode

The scores of people who walk along London's Bankside every day would find it hard to imagine that this was once a no-go area. Or at least a "why go?" area. Hardly a soul ventured on to Bankside, on the south bank of the River Thames, when Sam Wanamaker (pictured left) opened the Bear Gardens Museum in 1972 to showcase his plans for a new Globe theatre. I joined the project in 1984, and as Southwark Council had reneged on its planning agreement, the future looked bleak.

But Sam continued to plan for an International Shakespeare Globe Centre dedicated to education and performance, which he believed would transform the way Shakespeare was taught and performed in this country and abroad. Five years later, despite his desperate shortage of funds, he established Globe Education, to ensure that an education programme underpinned the Globe that would be accessible to those students not able to come to the theatre.

Sam died in 1993, four years before the reconstructed Globe opened. Fortunately, with the internet and digital revolutions, we can today share productions and practice with classrooms around the world in ways that would have delighted him.

Every English teacher knows how difficult it can be to capture the elements and energy of live performance when teaching a play in a classroom. John Marston, a playwright contemporary of Shakespeare's, apologised for printing The Malcontent. His play, he admitted, had been written to be spoken, not read. He could only hope that readers might remember the pleasure that the play had once given them when it was performed with the "soul of lively action".

Shakespeare also wrote plays for audiences rather than readers. Indeed, he adapted books published for readers into dramas for a popular theatre. Ironic, then, that many students first meet Shakespeare in a book on a classroom desk, without enjoying the "soul of lively action". Yet, if Shakespeare is to be positioned as a core author within the new English curriculum, it is essential that students are introduced to him as he intended, as a playwright and through performance. If every student is to benefit from their encounter with our most influential writer, it is imperative that it is inspirational.

I believe that everyone should have the right to be introduced to Shakespeare's plays, and school is the only place where one can ensure that this happens. But I also share the concerns of former Globe artistic director Mark Rylance regarding Shakespeare exams: he fears students being put in a position where they might "fail" Shakespeare.

Shakespeare's fellow actors would almost certainly have failed a formal exam. They were assessed daily by audiences, but unless they sneaked into the Tiring House to find the "prompt" copy, few ever had the chance to read the entire play.

The danger of "school Shakespeare" can be that what is meant to be maverick becomes mainstream. Plays that were once dangerous and alternative are subsequently deemed dull and dead. A "Shakes-fear" is instilled. Yet there has never been such an exciting time to teach or study Shakespeare at school. Theatres are devising performance-based projects to help "make the statue move indeed" and to find ways of putting the maverick back into the mainstream. Shakes-fear is prevented by innovative work in nursery and primary schools, with children meeting Shakespeare in playful schemes that nurture speaking, listening and reading skills.

The development of the craft of the arts practitioner in recent years is also helping to replace fear with excitement. When I was at school, a visiting actor turned up with little more than a scarf and a few green- room anecdotes. Today, an increasing number of theatres are taking the training of practitioners seriously.

Globe Education practitioners, who lead our Lively Action workshops, are trained to develop specialist practice, whether for primary, special educational needs, secondary or undergraduate students. Workshops often end on the Globe stage so that students experience at first hand the relationship of the play to the theatre building. Indeed, the Globe stage is run by Globe Education for six months of the year, allowing the department to develop productions for and with students.

Publishers, too, are enlivening the study of Shakespeare by effectively transforming classroom texts. Hodder has been working with Globe Education to develop interactive editions inspired by Globe practice, which introduce students to the myriad meanings and choices open to any actor in any one scene. Texts, illustrated with photographs of different Globe productions of the same play, are complemented with practical classroom activities drawn from the rehearsal room. An additional component offers film clips of rehearsals and performances, as well as interviews with actors and directors for whiteboards. An iPad version will soon be launched by Apple - a far cry from the colourless paperbacks that I read at school.

For the past seven years, Globe Education has had the support of Deutsche Bank to produce a Playing Shakespeare performance especially for young people. More than 15,000 free tickets are given to London students every year, and the project also offers workshops in schools, web resources and continuing professional development for teachers. For most students, the Globe visit is their first live theatre event. Shakes-fear seems to evaporate.

What would Shakespeare make of it all? Students studying his plays in a classroom? Teachers dragging students to theatres as part of their social and intellectual development? University courses created around his plays? I wonder if he ever imagined that his plays would have much of a life after his death.

At the end of The Winter's Tale, Leontes marvels at the statue of his wife Hermione: "What fine chisel could ever yet cut breath?" The statue stirs and then speaks. If school Shakespeare is to be more than an exam question about a seemingly lifeless cultural monument, we must continue to find and fund ways that allow students to meet Shakespeare as he intended and to discover his plays' "breath" through performance.

Patrick Spottiswoode is director of Globe Education at Shakespeare's Globe. For information on visits, workshops and resources, go to www.shakespearesglobe.comeducation

What else?

Key stage 1: Ideas for approaches

This Teachers TV video offers inspiration onhow to teach Shakespeare

Key stage 2: Slam poetry

In honour of Shakespeare's birthday, celebrated on 23 April, a Poetry Society competition winnershares her take on the Bard

Key stage 3: On the stage

Globe Education'sPlaying Shakespeare projectcommissions productions designed to engage young minds

Key stage 4: Set the scene

Studentscreate their own setswith the help of tips from the Globe's set designer

Key stage 5: Making a play

Follow the Globe's production ofThe Merchant of Venice, from rehearsal to performance

More resources for teaching Shakespeare

Original headline: A Resources special: Shakespeare and the Tudors - Why the play's the thing


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