As they like it

5th May 2006 at 01:00
Globe Education's Our Theatre project is 10 this year and, as Heather Neill explains, it continues to help pupils relax with Shakespeare's words

In his book Will and Me, Dominic Dromgoole, the new artistic director of the Globe, describes how his father read Shakespeare's plays to him and his brother at bed-time, and how later he declaimed Julius Caesar to the local cows. Shakespeare's words and stories don't come so naturally to many children, but Globe Education has been making them familiar to students for a couple of decades. One project, Our Theatre, designed for Southwark schools, is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Once a year, a dozen or so local schools work together to present one of the plays, each school telling part of the story on the Globe stage. This year, the day is the culmination of months of work during which Globe Education Practitioners (GEPs) collaborate with teachers in primary, secondary and special schools to explore a section of a play.

The choice for 2006, As You Like It, was something of a departure. How would young people respond to a comedy where so much of the action seems to be in the words? Would it be possible to express the convolutions of relationships through multiple casting? In the event, it worked beautifully, the schools following each other in sequence, everyone wearing a black tee-shirt decorated with a green leaf, and the action pointed by beautifully apposite music. Dog Kennel Hill Primary provided the percussion and singers from St Saviour's and St Olave's performed songs specially written for them by Mary Thompson.

The day in March was a heart-warming occasion, but how does the project work, and are there methods here that other schools can copy?

Method and preparation

The schools chosen from 40 applications to allow for variety of age and location; two continuing professional development days arranged and six GEP sessions scheduled for each school, one taking place at the Globe. Rebecca Ryan, community projects co-ordinator, and Fiona Banks, head of learning and teaching practice, take the crucial first step with the play itself, dividing it into chunks. These they edit and allocate according to the age and ability of the groups - special needs students may have few lines, while Year 10 drama students may deliver whole speeches.

Rebecca says: "The text must be clear for the participants, but also for the audience. It is not simplified - it is still Shakespeare's words - but the young people should understand what they are saying and make connections with their own life." The second important characteristic is the ensemble playing, a term with a specific meaning here. Most characters are played by several actors and a line may be said in unison or repeated by a series of voices. The practitioners generally do not hand out scripts but introduce lines verbally as required.

A dozen Year 10-13s from a special school, Spa, were responsible for the second section of the story. Unhappy that her father has been banished, Rosalind is comforted by her cousin, Celia. The vain courtier Le Beau tells them about the prowess of the wrestler, Charles. Patricia Kerrigan, the GEP working with the students, like many of the practitioners, is an actor: she was Goneril in the Globe's King Lear in 2001 and she is making a film in which she plays Beatrix Potter's Scottish nurse. But she also has a degree in psychology, and is doing an MA in child psychotherapy.

One morning in March the session begins with games in the school's drama studio. These focus concentration and exercise a few acting muscles.

Standing in a circle, everyone pretends to be a monkey, chewing, shaking, blowing out through the lips. Speech gets a quick work-out with some tongue-twisters: "Red leather, yellow leather" and "Betty bought a bit of butter". Patricia tests listening by getting the group to obey commands quickly: stop, go, jump, clap.

Soon the rehearsal begins. The yearning word "Father" is repeated round the circle. Celia begs her cousin, "I pray you Rosalind, be merry", with "be merry" echoed by other voices. Several Le Beaus deliver the line "You amaze me, ladies", each in a different way (on the day, this is thoroughly enjoyed by the audience, whose reaction puts even more spirit into the Spa students). Then a towering "Charles" shows what he can do - in mime, for safety.

The two schools delivering the last part of the story were Comber Grove Primary and Charter School, a Dulwich comprehensive. Philip Forrester worked with his Year 5 class at Comber Grove together with practitioner Lara Bobroff.

Lara begins by getting everyone in a circle to chant what sounds like a war dance, enjoying the rhythm. But, as Philip says later, because these are no real words, children are relaxed about using them to express emotions such as love, hate, anger or fear, as directed by Lara. Then the class concentrates on stop, go, clap and jump commands, sometimes having to remember that stop might signal go and vice-versa.

This group has to show Oliver, Orlando's brother, that he is in love with Aliena (Celia in disguise) and wants to marry her. Rosalind plots to make sure that all the other lovers are correctly paired. There is some heart-felt, love-lorn acting and everyone knows the lines - just enough of them to carry the narrative. At one point Lara checks understanding by asking an "Orlando" why he is fed up. He answers instantly with: "How bitter a thing it is to look into happiness through another man's eyes!" He truly "owns" the line.

Earlier sessions have involved storytelling: knowing an isolated scene really well is not sufficient. The group have explored words like "fantasy", "passion", "sighs" and "love" and expressed emotion in human sculptures. On the day, Philip is delighted with the class ("They were so clear, and they even got a laugh or two!") and with the clarity of the narrative of the whole play.

Lucy Williams worked with her Year 10 drama students at Charter School and GEP Chris Stafford on the resolution of the play. Chris begins the session with warm-up games to aid concentration and group cohesion. One involves two teams, each with arms linked, silently sending a pulse along the line, the last to receive the sensation grabbing a tie held as "prize". They are a bright group and, under Chris's guidance, have tackled some long explanatory speeches and more sophisticated choreography, mainly in twos and threes.

Later, Lucy says the experience was "amazing": "Teachers can learn from the practitioners, first whispering a line, then choosing a key word, then sharing words and saying them in unison." She is pleased that the students, treated like professionals, have learned the discipline of theatre and have become relaxed in speaking Shakespeare's now familiar text. But perhaps the best accolade of all comes from Philip Forrester: "I didn't have the confidence to teach Shakespeare before; I have now."

Lara's chant

A alayalay

Alaya tikka tonga

Awassa wassa wassa

A alay alaway alawah

* Call the class into a circle.

* Chant each line rhythmically, using suitable foot and arm movements, and get the class to copy you.

* Introduce different emotions, keeping the rhythm but varying movements, expressions, tone etc, and perform each line - eg yearningly, angrily, sadly, happily etc - within the circle.

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