shakespeare in east london: Helena is crushing on Demetrius!

This post is written by Lexi Earl.

In a Year Seven class at Eastbury School in Barking, London, the students are studying A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The purpose of the class is to enable students to emphathise with Helena’s situation and so to begin, the teacher has the class read a version of Helena’s speech, and then discuss it in pairs. The class exchange their ideas about Helena.

“Helena and Hermia are rivals,” one student explains. “Why?” asks the teacher. “Because Helena is crushing on Demetrius but Demetrius is crushing on Hermia!” the girl exclaims. “Helena is in love and obsessed with Demetrius whereas Demetrius is obsessed with someone else,” another clarifies. Then the teacher asks what background we get from the speech. “Helena really likes him [Demetrius],” the class tells her. “Demetrius used to be in love with her before Hermia turned up.” “She’s angry with him because of what he’s doing,” another student observes. The teacher explains that Helena is suffering from unrequited love. “What does this mean?” she asks. “When you like someone and they don’t like you back,” a student tells her.

Then the class moves on to talking about iambic pentameter and how Shakespeare uses it in the text before the students start to ‘walk the room’. First, they have to walk around and pay a compliment to three different people. Then they walk around exchanging insults. This results in much laughter as the students walk. After this, the exchange is reversed, so if somebody pays another a compliment, the complimented person has to respond with an insult, and vice versa. The class then pause to reflect on how they feel about these exchanges. The teacher asks, “how did that feel, if you gave a compliment and then you received an insult?”

“It feels like bad and sad cause you’ve just been kind to that person and they’ve been harsh back,” a student explains. Another says, “betrayed” whilst a third says, “rejected. Because when you talk to the person and are nice to them, you expect them to be the same back. You’ve done nothing wrong.”

The students divide into pairs and are each given a copy of Act One, Scene Two to rehearse. One student is playing Demetrius, the other, Helena. The purpose of this task is to explore the emotions and feelings that the characters are experiencing. The class works through the scene together. “What do we notice about what is being said?” the teacher asks. “Demetrius doesn’t love her,” a student notes. “Demetrius doesn’t love her, cannot love her,” another observes. “Helena does not return the insults,” notes another student. Some of the lines of the scene are written in iambic pentameter. The teacher says that they should pay attention to this but not be bogged down by it. “I love thee not therefore pursue me not!” the teacher reads out. “He sounds angry here”.

They first try the lines whilst pretending they don’t want anyone else to hear but still want to bring out how the character is feeling. Then they perform the lines as if they’re out in the open and don’t care if anyone hears. This time the class is much louder – some stand up to deliver their lines. The teacher asks, “ Which one fits the scene best?” “The loud one cause it’s an argument. You wouldn’t be whispering. He’s telling her to go away,” a student says. “I agree. That line ‘for I am sick when I do look on thee’, he is sick when he looks at her,” the teacher says. “You can’t tell when we’re whispering that they’re angry,” another student observes. “Demetrius gives her insults and she returns with compliments, like we did earlier,” says another. “They might be whispering because they are in the wood, and Lysander and Hermia are running away and they don’t want them to hear.”

Following this discussion, the students are given five minutes to create a scene between the two characters. The students enthusiastically embrace the chance to perform, and the class is loud with noise and busy with movement. The class then comes back together to watch some of the performances. Their teacher advises that while they are watching they should consider how each character feels. After the first pair, the class talks about their thoughts.

“Demetrius is really angry”. “He wants Helena to let go of him”. “Helena is lovestruck, crazy over change”. “Its like before cause he’s insulting her and she compliments him.” The second performance is slightly different, and so the class has different responses. “Helena is upset that she’s having a one-sided feeling”. “What about Demetrius?” the teacher asks. “I get the impression that he really hates her! He puts his hand out so she’ll just go away. He doesn’t want to look at her”. The third group is another pair of girls. Helena is much meeker than we have seen, practically whispering her lines. Demetrius is more aggressive. The class thinks Helena is quiet and moody. She doesn’t look at Demetrius that much, she looks at the floor. She is shy. Her body language is slouched, unexpressive. “He is saying the words to her hurt, but she doesn’t want to show him”.

The class is then expected to write a short monologue that explains their character’s feelings, before they discuss what they have learnt to end the lesson. Afterwards, I spoke to the teacher about these types of rehearsal room approaches to learning – that require children to be on their feet, or performing scenes. She says the class is more engaged when they learn this way. The reading of the text can be too boring. In this class they’re reading lines but are not too worried about what individual words mean, they can still gain an understanding of the scene. The teacher explained that this approach, based on training she had with the RSC, could be adapted to other texts that the young people were studying, allowing them to learn texts in ways other than the tradition of reading out loud.

understanding complex moral debates through drama

This post is written by Lexi Earl. 

During my visit to Sacred Heart School in Newcastle, I observed part of a Year 8 drama class. The class were studying a scheme of work based on Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle. The play the girls were studying revolves around a boy who is left abandoned by his mother, the queen, as she flees a country following the death of her husband, the king. He is raised by a servant for 10 years. The focus of the class was for the girls to decide whether the servant should return Michael (the boy) to the Queen or whether she should keep him.

In order to help the girls come to a decision about this tough choice, their teacher Rachel Burgess, led them through a series of challenging statements that they had to respond to. The hall space where the class took place was divided into three categories: agree to the far left, disagree to the far right and unsure, in the centre of the hall.

To start off, Rachel asks the class, “the king and queen were right to charge taxes”. The girls move into various positions around the hall. Rachel asks the girls to justify their choices. Then she asks, “were the king and queen morally okay to spend the money and not give it to those in need?” Now the girls’ justification and reasoning becomes more complex. The class is now much more divided across the spectrum and they debate about how public money should be spent and who should be able to spend this money. They bring up some interesting ideas about the money young people have to spend, and how they should be able to spend their parents’ money. The class also talk about how you need money to keep yourself afloat – you cannot give everything you have away.

Rachel then says, “people who are incredibly rich should pay higher taxes”. This is also controversial. One of the students says, “if they worked hard to earn that, they shouldn’t but if they’re born into it, they should. Like they didn’t do anything to get it”. “They don’t need all that money themselves. You should get taxed a percentage of what you earn”, another girl argues. “If you’re not being totally honest about how you’re earning your money, then you should pay more tax. If you give loads away then you shouldn’t,” another student argues. The girls’ positions change as they debate their initial responses. Some move from agree to disagree, others become more or less ‘on the fence’.

Rachel tells the class to think about the context of the play. The king died and the queen fled following an uprising and conflict. She says that the story is still relevant today. The class discuss the use of violence to change a government. They agree that the people of the town should have rebelled, but they should’ve tried peaceful methods first. Violence isn’t the way to voice your opinion. Rachel tells them, “there is a cost to rebellion.” One of the girls responds, “it depends on the type of rebellion. If it is against a government, if the government is unjust, I can understand why they would do that. If it was a chemical attack on a place, that’s just cruel. I don’t understand that”. [This lesson takes place in the same week as Donald Trump’s airstrikes on Syria, following the use of chemical weapons on civilians].

Rachel uses the example of Malala to talk about rebellion. She asks if she was right to rebel. She highlights that there are always two sides to every story or situation – it is about perspective.

The last statement that Rachel poses to her class is, “was the servant right to take the baby Michael?” One of the girls answers, “if she left the baby, he would’ve died” and Rachel offers, “she would’ve had that on her conscious”. Another student contemplates this dilemma: “I’m in the middle. It is hard work to look after a baby. She doesn’t have the money but he would’ve died otherwise”.

After these contemplations finish, the class work on performances that explain the missing years – those years when the servant was raising the baby. They can choose to explain them in whichever way they like – so perhaps the servant girl married and the family is well set-up, or perhaps the boy was treated harshly, or perhaps his real identity is a secret and the servant has never told him the truth of his own story.

A lot of students I talk to say that drama is often perceived as a subject where you pretend to be a tree, or where you just play games. In this class it is possible to see how complex moral questions can be debated and understood within the context of a drama lesson. The girls’ performances of the missing years were influenced by this discussion, and it furthered their understandings of the complex choices we sometimes have to make in our lives.

beware the ides of March!

This post is written by Lexi Earl, on her trip to King Ethelbert School in Kent.

During my time at King Ethelbert School, near Margate in Kent, I got to observe a Year 7 English class. The class were studying Julius Caesar. The English Department had chosen Julius Caesar as the Year 7 Shakespeare text because they were also participating in a production of Julius Caesar at the Marlowe Theatre, as part of their work with the RSC.

The class I witnessed was focused on the scene where Caesar is murdered (Act 3, Scene 1). While the class moved their tables and chairs to the edges of the room, Loren Hooker, their class teacher, asked them to think about “what the soothsayer says to Julius Caesar” and “why this is important”. We then arranged ourselves in a circle and Loren asked the class what the soothsayer says. “He says, beware the ides of March”, answered a student. Loren asked when the ides of March are – March 15th and why this is important – because it is a prophecy. It foretells Caesar’s death. We then began a warm-up game.

Everyone gazes at the floor. As Loren counts to 3 we take steps forward. On 3, we all look up, trying to lock eyes with someone opposite and say clearly “beware the ides of March!” If you lock eyes with someone, both of you are out of the game and have to die ‘a dramatic death’. This game was a lot of fun. The children in class were very enthusiastic, belting out the line dramatically, and falling to the floor when they ‘died’. Loren varied the speed at which they said the lines, and the voices they used (there is much laughter when they have to speak as an old woman). Eventually she brings the game to a close and they reflect on the skills they have learnt – coordination, voice projection, eye contact.

The class then moves on to a Woosh! They continue sitting in their circle but now participate in a reenactment of Act 3 Scene 1 while their teacher narrates. Loren tells the class to pay attention to the status of their character – how would they hold themselves, what would their posture be like?

The teacher says there is a huge crowd cheering. She runs around the circle, pointing to a number of students as she does so. The students shout enthusiastically and raise their arms, some with fists clenched, pumping at the air or waving. Another student is chosen as Caesar – he walks past the crowd. The teacher calls freeze and the crowd become silent, frozen in their stance. She chooses a number of senators and a soothsayer (the girl comes to take her coat from the table). The soothsayer joins the crowd and the senators join Caesar in the middle. The soothsayer pulls her coat up over her face, so that it is like a witch’s cloak. The teacher explains that Caesar spots the soothsayer in the crowd and gestures them forward. The boy playing Caesar calls the girl-soothsayer forward with his hand. The teacher tells them the lines and they repeat them: “the ides of March are here” he says scornfully. “Aye Caesar, but not yet gone”, she replies. “What does this mean?” Loren asks the class. She explains that the soothsayer is warning that the day is not yet over.

The class continues in this manner. There is a funny moment when the teacher says to an enthusiastic student, “you’re not stabbing anyone unless you’re sensible!” She continues, “I realize that is an unusual thing for a teacher to say” as the class laugh. Finally, Caesar lies dead on the classroom floor. “Et tu, Brutus”, he whispers.

KES LH class

Once that scene is done, the class rewinds briefly to the beginning of the play and the soothsayer’s initial warning. The students form two rows down the centre of the class and one child volunteers to be Caesar. Loren explains he is going to walk between the lines. The lines are the crowd and will stand and cheer. Loren says she will walk up and down the lines and tap someone on the shoulder – that person is then the soothsayer and must get in front of Caesar and say to him “beware the ides of March”. Caesar begins his regal walk down the lines and the children cheer enthusiastically – they shout and cheer loudly, some jumping up and down saying “It’s Caesar! It’s Caesar!” The Caesar-child shakes hands with people in the crowd as he goes along. The teacher taps a girl and she moves in front of Caesar and says the line but Caesar just dismisses her, doesn’t even really see her. Loren asks the class to freeze and explains what happened – Caesar was so caught up in being Caesar he didn’t even see the soothsayer! They repeat the scene and Loren chooses a different girl who jumps boldly in front of Caesar and says “beware the ides of March”.

After this Loren asks the Caesar-child what it felt like walking up and down. “It’s like I’ve had a birthday or something and everyone is congratulating me on becoming 12 or something!” She then asks the class how they felt, being the crowd – “someone with all the power is in front of me. It’s like oh my god.”

The class clearly understood the status and power held by different characters in these scenes, and how these change over time in the play. The opportunity for reflection also encouraged them to vocalise how it felt to play different characters, further enhancing their understanding of the play.

 

 

 

 

 

 

arts council peer learning

Emily Pringle (Tate), Becky Parry and Pat Thomson (University of Nottingham) attended the first peer learning day for the eight research projects funded by the Arts Council. Every project gave a brief presentation of their work.

We were very pleased to meet with our colleague researchers and hear about some shared concerns, particularly around ethics and impact – things that we will no doubt be thinking about a lot in the next two and a half years.