Well met by limelight

25th August 2000 at 01:00
Is it your dream to make Shakespeare appealing to youngsters?

Elaine Williams reports on a company that believes the key is in acting out the stories

Six-year-old Ava Podgorski looks panic-stricken. "If he does that," she declares, "then he'll fall in love with me again and then I'll have two of them after me!" The trouble is that Oberon (played by Mary Clare Ridge, aged seven) is about to drop Love-in-idleness on to the eyelids of the sleeping Demetrius (Robbie Hogan, six) and that once awake he will pursue Helena as ardently as Lysander (Daniel Higgins, six).

St Benedict's Roman Catholic primary school, in Ampleforth, North Yorkshire, is into its second two-hour workshop of the day on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The morning workshop involved the 40 juniors; this afternoon's is for its 28 four to seven-year-olds. They seemed to be having no problems with the complexity of the plot: a play within a play, a dream within a dream.

Alex Houston, the workshop leader and a member of the theatre company Shakespeare 4 Kidz, speaks to the stirring Demetrius: "Say: 'Hello Helena, I like you.' " Robbie complies, with a grin on his face, and proceeds, with relish, to chase Ava around the hall, followed by an equally enthusiastic Daniel.

Using a mixture of everyday speech and original text, Alex Houston guides her infant students through an enactment of the entire plot, including the play of Pyramus and Thisbe by the Rude Mechanicals, Bottom, Quince and company, which raises gales of laughter.

"Did you find that bit funny?" she asks.

"Yes!" "But it's supposed to be a tragedy! Why is it funny?" At the end, as at regular intervals throughout the workshop, Alex Houston gathers the pupils together for reflection. "If you went to bed and all these crazy things happened in the night and you woke up and it was morning, what would you think?" The response is immediate: "That we'd had a dream!" Alex Houston then slips into the original text: "If we shadows have offended, Think but this, and all is mended, That you have but slumber'd here While these visions did appear.

"Isn't that what Puck is saying?" she asks. "Isn't he saying 'Let's all pretend we've all imagined it, that it's not really true'?" Shakespeare 4 Kidz aims to make Shakespeare accessible, fun and funny for children aged four to 14. Alex Houston is one of a team of 20 workshop leaders, many of them freelance actors with teaching skills, which forms one arm of the company. They break down a play's plot into digestible chunks, getting children to act it out in their own language, interspersed with nuggets of the original text.

The company believes that it is only through acting, rather than reading, that Shakespeare's plays will become accessible to many children. Even children with special needs have taken to his verses with ease in its workshops.

St Benedict's headteacher, Shan Gallagher, was determined that all of his pupils, even those in reception, should have the chance to work with professional actors on Shakespeare's plays. Earlier in the year he had taken his juniors to see Shakespeare 4 Kidz perform a rock 'n' roll version of Romeo and Juliet, full of cheeky humour and appropriately pitched bawdiness. Impressed by the pupils' long-lasting enthusiasm for the production, he decided to invest in the company's school workshops.

Despite the cost - in this case about pound;400 for the day - so far about 2,000 schools and education action zones all over the country have subscribed to the workshops.

Shakespeare 4 Kidz was founded in 1997 by Julian Chenery, a former stockmarket trader who started writing musicals and pantomimes for primary schools when his own children were young. Inspired by Leon Garfield's Animated Tales of Shakespeare, he came up with the idea of creating three half-hour musicals based on three of the plays. However, in the end he was loath to edit out any of the original plot.

He says: "Eventually what we came up with was a piece of musical theatre leaving everything in, a unique blend of modern language and Elizabethan Shakespeare and music, something we believed would be a genuine stepping stone to the full text."

The company has staged productions of Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream and this September begins a tour of Macbeth. Julian Chenery writes the scripts and the music is composed by Matt Gimblett.

Purists might smart at the prospect of Lady Macbeth turning out a blues number called "You'd Better Leave it up to Me" or Malvolio singing "Cut the Mustard Dressed as Custard" on his way to meet the countess Olivia in Twelfth Night, but Julian Chenery believes that by taking such liberties and making Shakespeare comic and catchy he will draw children into love of the original. The vision has obviously found favour because next year a feature film called The Dream, based on Shakespeare 4 Kidz's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, is being released into cinemas.

Throughout the day at St Benedict's, Alex Houston and her workshop partner, Samantha Bignell encourage the pupils to recall what they are learning about the plot and the characters, keeping the storyline alive in their minds by drawing out their emotional experience. "How do you think Lysander and Helena are feeling?" Sam Bignell asks the juniors. "How would you feel if your father or your king said: 'Do as I say or die, or be a nun?' What would you do?" "Run away!" comes a swift reply.

"The line: 'Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania' - what does Oberon mean by that? How is he feeling about the fact that Titania won't do what he wants her to do?" she asks.

"Humiliated," cries a Year 6 boy.

The junior children follow-up their workshop with artwork, making a frieze of the characters in the play. "We deliberately avoided going off and writing things down," says Shan Gallagher. "We wanted the day to be about doing and making. We'll be following it up later with writing."

At the end of the day the pupils are clamouring to put on the play for their school concert.

Shan Gallagher says: "The workshop made me realise that it is possible to teach Shakespeare to young children. It has given me the confidence to do it and given them access to the plays. They will go on to secondary school liking Shakespeare and that is the whole point."

Do it yourself Shakespeare 4 Kidz also offers Put on a Play packs with a photocopiable script, musical score, a backing music CD and teachers' guide for around pound;200, enabling schools to put on its full-scale adaptations.

Follow-up Shakespeare 4 Kidz encourages teachers to follow up its workshops and performances with supporting projects. Try these suggestions.

* Casting Imagine you are casting for a film or stage version of the story. Who would you choose to play each part? Explain why, looking at the characteristics each person has in common with their character.

* Set design Write a list of where each scene occurs. How would you portray each one, be it in a wood or a castle.

* Props List the props you might need in each scene. Note who uses each prop, what for, where you might get it or how you might make it.

* Character profile Take one or more characters from the play and write an essay about what happens to them before or after we see them in the play. You could write about Oberon and Titania's wedding day. The story should refer to the play and why certain events happen. Did Macbeth, for example, see things when he was worried as a child and is that why he sees things in the play?

* Play writing Take a scene from the text and write your own version. Write it as a play with running dialogue.

* Comic strip Imagine you are producing a comic strip version of the story. Begin by writing down the plot and the characters. Try to make the story fit into just a few words. Each member of the class could draw the comic strip for a small part of the story to be collated into one giant storyboard.

* Quiz Devise a quiz based on the play, with questions about the characters and what happens to them.

* Watch a production Watch a film of the play on video. See how much of the story you are able to understand. Write a review.

Shakespeare 4 Kidz, 27 Station Road West, Oxted, Surrey RH8 9EE, tel 01883 723444, fax 01883 730384www.Shakespeare4kidz.co.uk

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