the play is not always the thing


launceston-college-inset-at-hfc_2015_steve-tasnner_159316In September 2016, over 30 lead teachers from the RSC Lead Associate Schools and theatre practitioners from Regional Theatre Partners came to Stratford-upon-Avon for the first national CPDL event of our new Associate Schools programme.

The three days were designed to:

  • Build capacity among teachers and theatre practitioners to lead the programme in their area
  • Develop participants’ understanding and teaching practice through immersion in the artistic practice of the RSC
  • Strengthen connections with other members of the Associate School community

Opportunities included: working with RSC directors, actors and musicians; seeing two productions (Cymbeline and King Lear) in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre; and working with members of the education department to share their vision and plans for the long and medium term.

I joined in as a researcher from the TALE project and, as someone whose role is predominantly to enable others to share their experiences, taking part took me outside my daily comfort zone. However, it was an immensely rich experience which helped me think afresh about the data we have been collecting from young people in each of the TALE schools.

Despite my ‘newbie’ status my peers welcomed me and inducted me into the group, showing me what to do, laughing and occasionally explaining the rules explicitly. I understood anew what the students I have been interviewing have been telling me, about being able to be brave in ways that enabled them to have confidence in their own ideas. For many of them the move from quiet and shy to having the confidence to express ideas verbally, bodily and in public is recent and fresh. As educators it was useful to remind ourselves of these feelings and reaffirm that we too have a right to speak and act with confidence and be heard.

Students from the RSC schools have made it clear that they value greatly the opportunity to develop and share their own interpretations. We know young people respond positively to intellectual challenge and they clearly don’t want to be told all the answers. It was fascinating therefore to hear at first hand how the RSC activities were introduced by Head of Professional Development, Miles Tandy. It is so much a part of the culture of education for pedagogic strategies to be shared in a recipe book, magic-bullet style. Here Miles shared his thinking about helping students grasp the main elements of the plot. He shared his doubts about the Whoosh, a tried and tested RSC technique, explaining that sometimes this can overly shape the students’ interpretation of the plays. In this simple act, Miles removed any sense of a hierarchical, prescriptive approach and the learning space became exploratory and collaborative.

LPN PG Cert Event_2012_Rob Freeman_22086.jpgMiles got us to try a different approach, to use Shakespeare’s words – ‘a dumb show’, which enabled physical and bodily representation of key actions but avoided interpretation, expressed in language, which might close down the meaning of the play for the students. The group of teachers and theatre partners jointly devised and performed the whole of King Lear without words, in mime to music. It was an enchanting experience and, as someone not that familiar with the plot, I was able to quickly get a sense of the characters and events. But, the enchantment was key. It was a ‘so much more than the sum of our parts’ feeling, a hard to articulate, in the moment, magic. In the focus groups students talk about how proud they are of themselves when it ‘goes right,’ and at that moment I felt what they meant.


Emboldened by this and Deputy Artistic Director Erica Whyman’s insistence on women volunteers I took a turn to read Cordelia. I was fresh from thinking fast and furiously about the role of women in Shakespeare’s plays. When Lear demands a speech declaring love from Cordelia I remembered my teenage self feeling angry at the value placed on public shows of affection or flowery words, rather than deeds. I connected with Cordelia then, although I have to say this didn’t help me to read or act the role better. It did help me to rethink my early impressions of a character I have previously thought of as gentle and too passive.

And then we went to see King Lear and an odd thing happened. I didn’t love it. I started the day with a reverent attitude … ‘It’s probably the work of genius’ and this view was being thoroughly shaken. In fact, I thought it was a ridiculously odd play. I thought back to our poring over the text and interpretations of characters and thought, ‘we are stretching the fabric too thin’. For me the play doesn’t work if we impose 21st century sensibilities on the characters of Goneril and Regan. It backfires. Men in the audience laugh at lines which scorn the sisters. Horrible. It’s just an odd play. I’m not sure I’d ever choose to perform it, direct it or teach it. I was left thinking, despite brilliant and subtle acting and staging, that poor old Bill must have been trying to please a lot of jealous actors when creating Lear.

So where does this leave me? Out in the cold? Well energised actually. Encouraged by the RSC approaches to think that my own interpretation counts. Confident to have that view even if it differs from others… That the play is not always the thing…

What emerged to me as of central importance was to recognize that the RSC Education approach encourages teachers and young people to think independently, to value their own experiences and interpret freely. This can be a dangerous liaison – it invites challenge to authority and rethinking of orthodoxies…. and this leads me to question whether looking at students’ exam results in English is ever going to measure the value of this work….do examiners look for this level of criticality? Can students articulate their thinking in writing (in an exam) as effectively as they do dramatically….?  I ended the weekend with my mind in a jumble of ideas, conflicts and new and important questions – always a sign of a valuable learning experience.






close encounters

Earlier in the year I was in Halewood School, visiting Art, Photography and Graphics staff and students. I was lucky enough to visit on a day when some of the students had returned from a trip to Barcelona. It was clear that the art, the galleries, the architecture and the food had all made an impact on the students:

I just liked walking around and seeing how other people interact.

It was a completely different culture.

I tried to look under the surface of their enthusiastic responses to understand the way that these young people engaged with challenging contemporary work for the first time.

The students reflected on the way they had been prepared for the visit by staff from school and in the galleries:

There were paintings I didn’t understand. But there were art students who explained, so it broadened my thoughts

The preparation was clearly key to the visit and it was refreshing to see the students being given space to honestly discuss their responses. They were encouraged to say what they thought.  Some of the year ten students expressed some uncertainty about some the work they’d encountered:

It [the art] didn’t really have any relevance.

We all had our preferences – some we found a bit strange.

But 6th form students articulated their responses in more depth and made strong arguments for the need to engage with art face to face.

It’s one thing seeing a piece on a computer screen but seeing it in person you see more.

Seeing it online the pieces can be diminished. You don’t appreciate the size.

 The students also made it very clear that, for them, seeing art isn’t all about admiration and appreciation:

 We went to see Banksy’s work and I’d seen all the pictures but when I saw the actual work it was different. It shocks you.

Having many and varied opportunities to access art through school and in their own city clearly has value, enabling students to explore their own responses and draw inspiration for their own self-expression. I’m not sure they would be able to do this in the same way if the premise for every visit was to invite them to simply admire and appreciate the exhibitions. Indeed as Head of Art Liz Shelbourne describes, the school invites the students to question and challenge what art is, making links to the Turner Prize in doing so.

At the schools’ preview of the Tate Modern’s new building and collections I caught up with the Halewood students again, as they encountered the new spaces. In observing their responses I saw everything from curiosity, surprise, boredom and enjoyment expressed as they encountered new work and new ideas. Trying to get a sense of the whole experience from the point of view of the students reminded me of their descriptions of the reasons they loved their visual arts lessons – it was the freedom of expression of ideas and the independent thinking that was expected of them.

Both at school and in gallery spaces the students’ own ideas about what they were experiencing were respected and listened to, and as a result they expressed genuinely diverse opinions,. They also demonstrated their understanding of subjectivity:

Two different people could be looking at the same painting and one could say ‘oh I get this from that’ and the other might not even know what it is.

The students described their own creative processes in art at school as being where they can try and make anything they want to, as long as they can justify or explain their decisions and ideas. When I asked them what they learnt from doing art, one of the students suggested:

It helped me in other lessons especially in GCSE. In art you have to link it back [to an idea] and in English you always have to link things back to the question – to show meaning and interpretation.

Liz Shelbourne and her team at Halewood, clearly also have high expectations of their students, ensuring they critically examine their own responses and develop these ideas in their own work.

My encounters with Halewood students having their own encounters with art, creativity and culture has lead me to reflect on the importance of having opportunities to see the art and culture of European cities at close quarters, to access contemporary art in prestigious cultural spaces and to be given the space to respond freely.


cashing in the learning

My research visit to St Albans school in Highgate, Birmingham concluded with an observation of a poetry lesson.  A year nine class were undertaking a scaffolded approach to writing their critical responses to Shelley’s poem ‘Ozymandias’. The aim of the lesson was to enable the students to transform their verbal responses to the poem into written sentences and then paragraphs working towards a full essay. Each element of the essay was carefully structured by Headteacher, Mark Gregory, to ensure the students were using appropriate language and specific vocabulary to articulate ideas clearly.

In order to enable the students to verbalise their responses, images of the students were projected which recalled to mind a lesson where they had created tableaux of key fragments of the poem. These images really helped the students embody the character of the ‘King of kings’ and therefore understand the themes of the poem. Indeed they seemed most engaged when trying to find ways to express the folly of vanity as depicted in one image of Ozymandias’ ‘sneer of cold command,’ represented by one of their peers. This technique of working in an ensemble format is one of the key approaches of the RSC. To collaborate with peers to embody a line of poetry or prose clearly creates a safe space for the discussion of meaning and animates the written word. The photos act as a reminder of this process and help the students sustain their engagement with the poem once they have moved on to written responses.

During the discussion of the movement of time as a theme and in the rhythm of the poem one student noticed with some excitement,

‘The last line is the slowest.’

 Mark Gregory built on this observation:

‘It’s beautiful what you said and that you noticed.’

They entered a dialogue about which word would be the best to express the idea and agree on ‘pace’. Mark added:

 ‘If you can close that out, that’s on the money. That will be amazing.’

Importantly then, the lesson draws on the RSC active approaches to challenging texts, but also makes careful links to the demands of GCSE English Literature, a course the students have commenced early, to ensure that the ideas they have developed become more concrete and controlled. It strikes me that there is a balance to be struck between guiding students to ‘cash in’ their learning, with enabling them to transfer their learning, independently, into achievement in their coursework and examinations. The use of photographs of the dramatic process and a rich dialogue with a teacher who challenges thinking throughout seem key to this process.

an emphasis on performance

Chris Hall reports on her visit to Launceston College in Cornwall.

Bryan Maywood, the head at Launceston College, keeps his old year 10 English folder in his desk drawer. The folder reminds him about his own learning in English, a subject he’s passionately interested in now. He remembers the support and advice he got from a slightly older friend. He remembers a teacher who accurately identified precisely what he needed to know to do well in his literature exam, and then made sure he learned it. He is amused now by the examples in his folder of rather less detailed and constructive feedback from other teachers.


The themes of this first-thing-on-a-Monday morning conversation with the head – the value of peer support, how you learn to perform well, the importance of attention to detail – cropped up throughout my visit. For example, Kate Prouse, second in the English department, told me how when she’d first started work at Launceston, she’d been immediately struck by the cohesiveness of the college community and how the students genuinely support and are interested in one another. Kate put this down in part to the emphasis in the college on performance.   She explained how performance is factored in to the annual cycle of the school year: through house and whole school assemblies, an ambitious school production, exhibitions, competitions, a summer term activities week, lively art, drama and music programmes…

Jack Jackson, the college’s executive head, told me about the current adventure learning programme and plans for a new award system that recognises achievement and supports progress across five areas (adventure, performance, curriculum learning, understanding others, skills). Dan Wendon, assistant principal with responsibility for teaching and learning, explained the college’s staff development programme, which challenges teachers to devise and conduct action research projects that they judge will have a positive impact on their own professional learning.

All of the Launceston students I met were hugely appreciative of this focus on performance. They really valued the encouragement their teachers gave them to share their work with their peers, whether this was in assemblies, in lessons or in wider public events. They said they trusted one another. They learned to be more confident, to speak up, to express themselves. They made new friends through working together to get the performance right and many of them said they learned more about themselves. They loved the applause they got at the end because they knew they had earned it. They said they learned a lot from seeing other students perform.

And then there were The Fairies – students from years 7 and 8 who, just before my visit, had performed in the RSC’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Hall for Cornwall in Truro.

images-1.jpegBursting with pride and plans for a career on the stage, the fairies had a torrent of stories about what they’d learnt from being in the RSC cast and working alongside professionals. But they had even more to say about the impact of the show on their families. They loved the fact that many of their relatives had been so engaged with the details of rehearsals and the planning that led up to the final performances. They said their families were still talking and texting about what they’d been doing. And now they’d heard that some of the fairies were to be invited to an official reception at 10 Downing Street, and timages.jpeghey had a lot to say about why they thought this had happened and how they thought students should be selected to attend.

I’d already heard about the fairies – from Dan, of course, who fixed up the meetings for me, but also from the older students I’d been interviewing, some of whom had helped out with mentoring and organising. The performances had created ripples in and out of the school.

I could see what Kate meant about the way the emphasis on performance helped build community cohesion.




where’s that going to get you?



unspecifiedF62B22SWIn many of the schools we have visited, students complain about the ‘where’s that going to get you?’ question. This question refers to their choice of art, drama, music, dance or photography as a GCSE subject. If we follow the question’s rather literal logic we might expect all students who have taken History to become Historians. Putting our collective understanding of the global employment context (or lack of it) aside for the time being, the ‘where’s that going to get you?’ question seems to have had an unexpected impact on young people. The 24 young people we meet in each of the thirty schools we are visiting, seem pretty clear about the value of the arts to their lives and refer to their own developing self expression, independent working, ability to take risks, collaborate and time manage. They also talk about personal growth and learning to empathise with the views of others in order to see the world from different perspectives. Whilst there is clarity and consensus about the value of art education, the students’ do not always have a similar breadth of knowledge and experience of the types of careers available to them as a result.

At Childwall School the range of partnerships with artists, creative and cultural institutions, such as the Tate, and universities directly addresses this issue. Students show an awareness of a wide range of future career possibilities and an awareness of the need to participate in creative communities in order to make important connections with art and artists in their city.

This ethos seems to emerge from the school, whose large scale public art and extensive murals create a sense of belonging as well access to art in the school itself. As Head of Art Chris Tyrer states:

We’re trying to get our pupils to buy into the idea of creating something and yet, if we are just telling them how to do it it’s completely different to them seeing something that is going to inspire them. For me if they are not inspired and they don’t see things in a real space then we are doing our pupils a disservice.

An appreciation of the wider ‘scene’ of arts practitioners in Liverpool has clearly made an impression on one student Alex Owens who describes himself as a Designer Maker and is a current student of Design at Liverpool Hope University. Alex works as an art technician at Childwall on a voluntary basis – he loves the place and is totally committed to it. I asked him why:

We once came up with the idea that it is a sense of belonging. That we should be here.

Alex also has a shared space at Bridewell studios which he says is great for students because it is so cheap. He describes how his teachers encouraged him to seek out interesting places to develop his ideas, as well as allowing him to retake exams and supporting him with university applications. Although he isn’t from an arty family he was often in a welder’s workshop with his Dad and is now already establishing himself as an artist. Alex finds Childwall an inspiring place to work and is unafraid of trying new approaches and materials:

I see new ways of making something every day. For example, digitally making via 3D rendering software and printing some ink via computer on to a T-shirt or piece of material.

To find out more about Alex’s work contact him on:

The assumption in the question ‘where’s that going to get you?’ is that young people who do arts have little chance of ‘becoming an artist.’The impact of creating school spaces where young people work as artists and alongside artists therefore reflects and refracts this question in some thought-provoking ways.

redeeming Shylock

Gregory Doran 2_001

During my visit to King Ethelbert School in Kent The headteacher, Kate Greig, attended the annual Dimbleby Lecture, this year presented by Gregory Doran, Artistic Director at the RSC. I felt at first hand Kate’s delight at the school being mentioned during this speech because of their commitment to teaching Shakespeare actively. Kate believes the students should recognise that the work belongs to them. Away from the glamour of speeches at The Shard, I was therefore extremely interested to understand how this belief becomes a tangible programme of work in the school.

Led by a team of teachers including Stacy Golding, Carol O’Shea and Amy Humphrys the school’s involvement in the LPN for two years and prioritises training new staff, using the RSC ensemble, active learning approach to teaching Shakespeare. I was delighted to be able to observe a year 8 English class was studying ‘The Merchant of Venice’ with newly qualified English teacher, Liz Channing.

The class began with a starter activity, inviting the students to reflect on their past learning about the characters in the play and their emotions. The activity also encouraged students to think of a wide range of vocabulary to describe those emotions. In the feedback session for this activity it was interesting to see the way the teacher helped the students make connections between the characters and their own experiences. The students drew on their previous learning in this section too, demonstrating rich understanding of the key themes of the play. It was particularly exciting to observe the way Liz prioritised the students’ developing understanding of the relationships in the play and had clearly built a safe space for learning in which students could express ideas even if they could not recall the character’s name or pronounce it with confidence.

The game which was used for warm up, ‘Bang,’ enabled the students to begin to physically react to their peers and also connected nicely with the conflicts being explored in the subsequent activity. Links were again made to the children’s own experiences and to the play in ways that successfully built the students’ anticipation of the next task.

The students were then asked to work in small groups on a short extract of text from the play, reading some sections and representing meaning in physical freeze frames. The groups discussed, planned and rehearsed their sequence and were later joined with another group who had been working on a linked scene so that there were two larger groups who took it in turns to perform a longer scene. In setting up the task Liz emphasised her high expectations of the performance and linked the room layout to an imaginary ‘in the round’ performance space.

The students engaged in lengthy and high stakes discussion with regard to their roles and responsibility. Some groups moved quickly to active rehearsal of movement, others spent longer planning. Some students, having been allocated a fairly small role took to practising this over again and, given that the role involved drunken arguments, they became highly immersed in their roles! This led to frustration from their peers. I was fascinated by this because it is so critical to the process of devising, for the students to have the chance to try out different approaches to group creative and collaboration and to learn from their own mistakes.

At times, this led some students to disagree and feel frustrated whilst a small number of others sat back and let peers take the lead. However, if students are micro-managed to ‘behave well’ in this context, and never experience the challenge of this sort of learning environment, they may not be able to fully engage with the play, the pedagogical approach and conflicting ideas. It was therefore compelling to see this work in a year 8 class with an NQT who had clearly been encouraged by the senior leadership team to use the active approaches to teaching Shakespeare without fearing that the buzz of activity in the room would leave her open to criticism. Indeed the role of the teacher here was to mediate in the groups and redirect their attention onto the important themes they were exploring, allowing them space and time to attempt to work together and begin to learn for themselves the skills involved in resolving differences and working to a deadline.

In one discussion  the students suggested that what they had been asked to do was ‘not easy’ and Liz agreed that it was ‘hard’ but suggested that they ‘think about how they individually could make their contribution more effectively,’ supporting them in taking personal responsibility.

The performances were executed with varying levels of success and engagement, and a useful plenary followed where the students were asked to think like film critics about what could have been better, which led to some productive comments and a clear recognition by some students of the performances which had been particularly effective.

Importantly, they were asked if the activity had made them feel any differently about Shylock. Here the discussion became very animated, despite a weather change (to thunder and lightning) and the imminence of the bell. One student found the words he was looking for to help him explain his ideas about Shylock. He had played the famous character and felt he was ‘kind of redeemed.’ There was disagreement which was a highly stimulating end to a rich lesson which demonstrated the way the school draws on the RSC approaches to enable their students to claim Shakespeare’s characters as their own.

being a tree

There is a myth that ‘doing drama’ regularly involves ‘being a tree’. This was something the year 12 students at the Canterbury Academy were keen to highlight, having been trees in a recent ensemble production of ‘The Dream: Met by Moonlight’ at The Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury. Although they shared this experience with a great deal of humour and self-mockery, they were keen to emphasise two things. Firstly, that by being trees, part of a series of tableaux, and representing the magic of the forest, they had also been supporting younger year eight students who were playing the lead roles in their scene. Secondly, the students described the act of being a tree as one that takes you out of your comfort zone, something they say is a regular feature of doing drama. Certainly when I caught up with the year eight students it was clear that working with more experienced peers in supporting roles was highly significant both to their developing stage craft and to their sense of belonging to a school, sharing a passion and enthusiasm for the performing arts:

Our social skills developed from working with others. We understand what other people are like. The sixth formers we worked with were our role models and they made us feel welcome and like we can be like them when we are older.

(Year 8 student at Canterbury Academy)

Being ‘out of your comfort zone’ is a phrase used by many of the students I have encountered during this first phase of the research and is something they describe as a key feature of drama and performing arts, helping them develop confidence by doing something really challenging and unfamiliar:

People think I’m shy and nervous so I couldn’t understand the character traits [of the confident character of Titania] but by the end I greeted the character like a best friend and showed off the sassy side I have when I am with people I know. I found out more about myself from the experience.

(Year 8 student at Canterbury Academy)

As Becky Huckle, Director of Extended Services, at the school commented:

Taking the creative risks that are part of the performing arts, allows children to realise it’s okay for things to not always go well, in fact, that when you mistakes that’s often when things get better. Many of our pupils lack in self-esteem and confidence; the performing arts and, creativity in general, enables them to build this and many other skills that help them become well-rounded young people, able to handle challenges and work with others.

Executive Principal, Phil Karnavas, added:

Our partnership with The Royal Shakespeare Company is part of a consistent approach of working with professionals from industry to give our children the highest quality experiences. Working with local schools in the partnership is a real highlight of the programme; it’s great to be able to be a hub for such creative activity. Seeing the impact the work has on the children and staff involved across the partnership is inspiring. Active approaches, which are the key tenet of the RSC partnership are shared across other areas of the curriculum and we are developing ever closer relationships with The Marlowe Theatre to diversify this and bring in theatre professionals to enhance learning in different subjects.

The performance of ‘The Dream’ was part of the programme of work undertaken by Canterbury Academy staff and students with RSC Education and involved 9 schools and 221 children and young people. Each group were allocated a scene and then interpreted and performed it as a group to a large audience of family, friends and staff. I was particularly delighted to have seated behind me three lads who were attending without an adult and who talked loudly and began munching their way through a considerable supply of crisps and sweets. When the performance began, however, they became quiet until their excitement spilled over when one of their friends appeared, playing Bottom. ‘Go on Archie,’ one of them called and it was a sentiment the audience around them clearly shared. There was a strong desire to vocalise support and go beyond the polite convention of clapping as each scene drew to a close. The degree of empathy and engagement of the audience and the performers with the play was conspicuous throughout. By paying attention to the detail of each scene, each cast really bought new life to this much performed story, rethinking and representing what fairies might be, or actors or indeed trees.

Programme designed by Naomi Jeffers & Eloise Holman, Year 10 Canterbury AcademyProgramme