Chris Grace's inspired idea of schools staging half-hour productions of Shakespeare is now in its fourth year and going from strength to strength, reports Elaine Williams.
For years Britain's literati have been banging on about the nation's schoolchildren being unfamiliar with the iconic texts of literature, complaining that youth is no longer exposed to the language of Shakespeare and Chaucer or even the great narratives of the Bible - except perhaps in soundbites. Chris Grace, too, has mourned the loss of "cultural memory".
The difference is that, never one to indulge in hand-wringing, he decided to do something about it. Thanks to his intervention, 1,300 schools have staged productions of Shakespeare in 105 professional theatres across Britain over the past three years.
As an entrepreneurial risk-taker and head of children's programming and director of animation at Channel 4 Wales (S4C) for more than 30 years, Mr Grace grabbed opportunities when they came his way. His vision means that virtually all secondary English departments and many primary schools own videos of Shakespeare - The Animated Tales, a series of 12 half-hour films of compressed versions of Shakespeare's plays, abridged by Leon Garfield and performed using puppets and drawn animation. These, along with the animated Canterbury Tales, have earned Mr Grace a clutch of Bafta and Emmy awards.
Having retired from S4C, Mr Grace, now aged 57, has moved on. When he heard that a school had used the text of one of The Animated Tales to stage its own performance, the Shakespeare Schools Festival was born. Mr Grace turned from animation to live performance in schools.
The festival is now in its fourth year. When he set about making the animations more than 10 years ago he knew he was on to a something, though few agreed with him at the time. Now he is certain that the festival, too, is a winner. Aimed primarily at students in Years 7 and 8, it offers teachers and students training workshops with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the theatre-in-education company Dramarama, and the chance to perform alongside three other schools in a regional theatre before a paying audience.
The festival, piloted in Pembrokeshire, has toured the regions. In 2001, he took it to London (see Friday magazine, October 5, 2001). In 2002, it went back to Wales with huge support from the Welsh Assembly and Arts Council of Wales; 100 schools and 2,500 pupils were involved. Last year, 340 schools performed in 26 professional theatres in the south-west, the West Midlands and Yorkshire. Mr Grace believes every child should have the opportunity to have "at least one go at it". This year, the festival goes to London, eastern England and the north-west; Northern Ireland will be included in 2006, Scotland in 2007.
It's an ambitious project, with funding a nightmare, but he is buoyed by the exuberant response from schools, and the ingenious interpretations of the plays: Julius Caesar set in the "Romans" nightclub, and Macbeth in an office with witches casting spells around the photocopier. But he is used to success against the odds. At S4C, Mr Grace had already made a name with Super Ted and Fireman Sam but he had long been interested in the eastern European tradition of puppet model animation as an art form and alternative to Disney. When the Berlin Wall came down and President Gorbachev, in the spirit of perestroika, invited the world to "come and work with Russia", Mr Grace took his chance against all advice. Leon Garfield had already agreed to abridge 12 Shakespeare plays for animated film scripts when Mr Grace travelled to Moscow to form an alliance with Eliza Babachcna, managing director of the newly founded Christmas Films, who promised to deliver animation if Chris Grace could deliver the money.
It was very hand-to-mouth. In Russia, Mr Grace found people gifted in puppet animation who were reduced to using abandoned churches as studios and could only work after a morning queuing for food. During the turbulent years of filming that spanned two attempted coups, Mr Grace persevered, ignoring critics at home who said an animated Shakespeare initiated in Wales was dumbing down. He knew that if he could get the films made he would prove them wrong. He was right.
Today teachers think he is also right about the Shakespeare Schools Festival. Nicola Wall, drama teacher at Bartley Green technology college in Birmingham, chose a mixture of gifted and talented and special needs pupils to perform A Midsummer Night's Dream at the city's Crescent Theatre last year, including a boy who had a "severe stutter" as Puck. Ms Wall had never put on a performance of Shakespeare. "For me, Shakespeare was untouchable, but I have learned so much," she says. "It has been a life-changing experience for us all."
The festival has attracted attention in high places. Last year, pupils performed plays before Cherie Blair, Laura Bush, Tom Stoppard and others at 10 Downing Street, and Stoppard has offered to abridge The Merchant of Venice for the festival. Last night, a showcase performance at the Peacock Theatre in London had Prince Charles in the audience, as patron and founder of the Arts and Kids Foundation, along with members of the Young Presidents' Organisation, a global network of business leaders founded in 1950, which has adopted the festival as this year's charity.
Pupils from Campsmount technology college, a comprehensive in the former pit village of Campsall, near Doncaster, and from Dartmoor technology college, Devon, performed their energetic versions of, respectively, AMidsummer Night's Dream and Richard III. Alan Sutton, head of drama at Dartmoor, spoke for many teachers when he said: "We all want to know when we can do it again."
* Every teacher director is given a half-hour script of their chosen play
* A teachers' Royal Shakespeare Company workshop day is held in June in a regional theatre
* Pupils get a half-day drama workshop
* A single performance is arranged in a regional theatre before a paying audience with three other schools
* Technical and set design support is provided on the day of performance
* Each play is appraised by a member of the arts community
* There is a gala performance in London atthe end of the festival
* Cost per school: pound;450
Contact: Shakespeare Schools Festival, tel: 0207 252 4123; fax 0207 701 9403; email: firstname.lastname@example.org