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.

a shared approach to shakespeare

This post originally appeared on the RSC’s News page. We have published it here with kind permission from the RSC. 

This post is written by Becca Wood, an English teacher at Towers School.

Working as the lead teacher at my school, within the Associate Schools’ programme has shown me the power of shared experience. My goal, as an educator, is to ensure that my students leave school with the tools that they need to be confident, engaging and eloquent. Thus, I see the value in the spoken word and importance of performance. As a challenge, I tasked my mixed ability Year 7 class, who had been studying A Midsummer Night’s Dream using an active approach, with learning Sonnet 116 by heart.

Initially, we began by using some of the RSC’s approaches to tackling a new text. Students were asked to provide actions for each line, giving a strong gesture to a significant word or phrase. Repeating this around the circle encouraged the students to recognise the power within the language physically, and gave them an understanding of the need to match this with their voices. Each student was given a line, which then became their line. Taking ownership of this, again, added a passion to their voices. Students were told to walk around the room, making eye contact as they went; as they did this, they would recite their line to someone else in the room. This allowed students to grow in confidence with their line, sharing a group effort to remember the language and rhythm. Before the lesson ended, the class returned to the circle and recited the lines in order, with gestures, one last time. An energy and excitement had already begun to emanate from the students. As they left, they were warned that by the next lesson, they would be expected to remember seven of the fourteen lines.

As I bumped into them around school, I would open the Sonnet with ‘Let me not…’ and pause for them to continue the line. Taking Shakespeare out of the classroom and into the corridors, canteen and school playground was phenomenal. The next lesson arrived and, with the support of our collaborative gestures, all students could recall half of the sonnet. An involuntary round of applause erupted from the class when they realised that they could do it and a wave of pride rippled around the circle. Obviously, the challenge did not stop there.

Students were given one more week to learn all fourteen lines. Within classrooms, their lessons would begin with a ‘fill in the gap’ activity, using the lines from the sonnet. As ever, I would continue to randomly test students; in the lunch queue, in the middle of writing, at the school gate.

As always, empowered by a confidence only possible through an active approach to a text, the students continued to surprise me. They began reciting the sonnet to other members of staff. The Principal, sat eating his lunch in the canteen, was approached by two boys, who asked, “Can we tell you a poem, Sir?” They then recited Sonnet 116, in its entirety, in the middle of a packed canteen. Other members of staff would send me wonderful emails about my passionate Year 7s, who had recited a poem to them with such vigour.

During a packed Open Evening, the Vice Principal gave a welcome speech in which she praised the fact that at Towers School, the students recite poetry at lunch; after which, a tearful parent came up to her and said, “You’re talking about my son, aren’t you?” She had recognised the change in her child and could not believe what he had felt empowered to do.

A collaborative, active and shared approach to Shakespeare allows students to shed themselves of any inhibitions and immerse themselves in a shared exploration of the text. My Year 7 class understood that what they were doing was not easy but by doing it together, as an ensemble, they felt empowered.

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.

investing in drama and performing arts

This post is written by Lexi Earl. 

During my trip to Uxbridge High School Amy Walker, the drama teacher, was keen to show me their new performing arts building . This new space was opened in September. It features a large drama studio with long blackout curtains that has a wall of moveable windows that fold out to become an outdoor theatre, complete with lighting and sound; and a wing for music students to practice and attend lessons in. The building is aptly named the Orsino Building and features his famous quote from Twelfth Night, “if music be the food of love, play on”.

It is an impressive space indoors, where drama students can rehearse their productions, but it is even more exciting when you imagine the outdoor theatre full of people enjoying a play. Amy explained that they intend to put on a production in the space in the summer term when (hopefully) the weather will be pleasant.

I thought it was quite surprising (but very inspiring) for a school to build a space actively promoting drama and performing arts, given all the negativity nationally that surrounds arts education. I asked the students in Year 12 and 13 their thoughts about how the school values art and it was clear that they also saw the theatre and new spaces as proof that the school supported their work.

I’ve been here since Year 7 and between Year 7 and 8 there were a whole load of new drama teachers who came in and they’re the ones who teach here now, and since then I’ve noticed that drama was taken a lot more seriously and it became a more fleshed out department. Drama is taken very seriously by the department and thereby by the rest of the school because the stuff that is put on in drama like school productions; I have people who don’t take drama and have never taken drama, say that was really good, that was really amazing.

It’s the facilities as well. When I was back in Year 7 you had two little classrooms and they weren’t really good for drama at all and this building opened, the activities studio and the learning zone upstairs; and we’ve now got the Orsino Building which of course has the outside stage and the massive room in there, as well with state of the art lighting systems. It shows how keen not just of course the drama department are, but the rest of the school are to help improve not so much the facilities but also the perception of performing arts. Because if they show that the school cares then certain students are going to show that they already care and they might be more keen to get into it.

I then asked them what they thought the perception of drama and performing arts was within the school.

It’s a lot more accepted than what it was, five or six years ago. I think like back in Year 7 and Year 8 when we used to go round and you didn’t want to admit it. It was just oh I do drama and I like acting, but you never admitted it, whereas now loads of people come up to me and they know I do performing arts. You can be more open if you like acting or enjoy performing arts, because the school shows they’re invested in that.

At A-level, pretty much any performance that we spend a long period of time on, we like people – our friends – to come in and watch it. That helps with the perception because people realise it’s not just hours of playing drama games or pretending to be a tree; all those stereotypes about drama, because wow!, you’ve been working on a performance for five months and it was really good. I definitely think that helps.

The school’s investment in a performing arts space has clearly sent a signal to the students about the value of drama and performing arts, and this in turn, has boosted their confidence and willingness to share their passion with others. It was reassuring to see this valuing of arts, at a time when so much of what we read about arts education is negative.

 

“we are such stuff as dreams are made of”

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

Imagine, if you will, walking along a coastal path. The seagulls are calling above you. The sky is blue and the sun warms your back. The sea crashes nearby, giving you glimpses of blue, green, aquamarine. Then you turn a corner and there, in front of you is a woodland sprite. A small creature dressed all in black with a red and orange tutu around its waist. Then, hark!, a wigwam, from where emerges a child that reminds you wholly of a lost boy from Peter Pan. Then you stumble upon a small boat with a cloud above it. It could be the Swallow that took the children to the island. Another small child passes you in a dark cape, carrying a staff – a young Gandalf, perhaps. There are others in white with blue ribbons, some in silver dresses. What on earth is going on?

You could be mistaken for thinking you had fallen through a rabbit hole and landed in a wonder-never-land, had you come upon this scene. I certainly felt I had stumbled into another world, one filled with sprites and spirits, queens, dukes, and bears. But in fact, I was simply near the beach at Folkestone to see a production of The Tempest. This particular performance was put on by a group of local Kent primary and secondary schools, as part of a Royal Shakespeare Company sharing event.

Becky Huckle, of Canterbury High School, had invited me to come to the performance as I happened to be visiting the school in the same week. This was an event organized by Becky and Canterbury High as part of their role as a Lead Associate School in the RSC’s education programme, with support from the Marlowe Theatre.  Not only did they put on a version of The Tempest (involving 10 different schools and 10 different scenes) but they also organized workshops for students and teachers to participate in, ran rehearsals so the children could get a sense of the space on stage, and organized other productions for the children to watch. (The boat I thought might take us to the Swallows and Amazons’ island turned out to be its own stage, the cloud rained constantly upon the actor, who did his whole performance via mime).

The Tempest performance took place at the open-air amphitheatre on the coastal path. The half-moon stage was framed by the amphitheatre’s columns, the audience sat on raised seating, and was able to see ‘backstage’ because everything was open to the elements. There was grass underfoot, blue sky above and the occasional curious passer-by, who paused to watch.

Coastal amphitheatre

Each school was allocated a scene and was then given the opportunity to interpret and perform it however they wished. The whole play was performed in sequence, with schools appearing for their scene and then rejoining the audience afterwards. There were many scenes with multiple children playing the same character, other scenes where children switched roles, or echoed lines. There was clever use of ensemble so that more children could be involved in scenes with fewer characters. The children made use of very physical theatre, moving about the space in unison, using their bodies to depict the location (the sea, for example) or falling over to great comedic effect. There were clever sound effects – the sound of the wind created by spinning plastic tubes at high speed – and use of music – a flute playing or children singing. Behind us the sea crashed and swayed, transporting us to Prospero’s Island.

Becky Huckle explained that part of their choice of the amphitheatre was to give students the experience of a “non-traditional theatre location”. This choice of location really added to the atmosphere and joy of the production. One of the teachers I sat next to kept saying ‘that was brilliant’, after every scene. I have to agree. It was a truly magical experience.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

self-expression and reflection

This post is written by Lexi Earl on her visit to Ark St Albans Academy in Birmingham.

On my visit to Ark St Albans Academy I had an inspiring talk with a group of Year 13s. I was struck by the way the students talked about how involvement in creative activities had taught them how to reflect on their own lives and places in the world.

St Albans has worked with the RSC, who guide schools on rehearsal room approaches to study Shakespeare, in Drama and/or English. The Y13s I spoke with had benefited from these approaches to teaching Shakespeare in their English classes. They had also taken advantage of work experience with the RSC that had been offered through their school. But what became clear is that these experiences were not limited to understanding Shakespeare; they affected how students were able to understand the world, and express their opinions about it.

The students said that learning to express oneself and one’s opinions is an important skill, particularly in the current political climate.

[…] but even before he [Donald Trump] came in, it was still corrupt and you know it’s just going to get worse by the end cause of the way the system’s set up and everything. So if you have these young adults not knowing how to express themselves, not knowing how to go on 

Not knowing how to deal with it, the only focus in life is get good grades, get good grades, go to uni, get good grades, go to uni. For what?

Especially growing up in the inner city as well. I think it’s really important to get self-expression otherwise you can get dragged into so much stuff which I think people like us have so narrowly escaped.

And the thing is when you look back on you’re like whoa

The students linked the ability to express oneself with the ability to evaluate your actions, and the way you react to situations. They reflected in particular on life in the inner city, and the way people from disadvantaged backgrounds are not necessarily given the opportunity to develop this reflective skill.

I feel as though it also stems from like the fact that you’re not really evaluating, not, not given the chance and not evaluating why it is you do what you do. And through art you do that. Through art you look around. […] They need that art because it allows you to stand back and look back and think why am I doing, why because to be honest they’ve probably realised the first most important thing that, not the most important thing but that why am I going to uni and they’re probably like well there’s no point.

And art is definitely a way in which they can [express themselves]

This understanding of art as a form of self-expression became even more apt when one of the students talked about her own goal to represent people that are not necessarily often featured in the arts – people who come from particular religions, or backgrounds. The student argued that promoting art and self-expression was hugely important in changing the way ordinary people can relate to art.

And also the art that is promoted is probably art that comes from middle-class society where it’s art that represents white people in really heroic roles. You know it’s not for the main stream people which is like one of the forms of art that I try to do is like representation like painting Muslim women who aren’t depicted in art at all. And like to stamp their place in history to be honest. But that’s you need more artists who can portray a lifestyle that we live so that there is representation out there as those people can relate and if the art isn’t promoted then that’s just not going to happen.

These students’ experiences with the RSC, and the way they have learnt to express their opinions, has enabled them to reflect on their places in the world. They identified the ways that creative school subjects can help people understand the world, and told me that this has ultimately, enabled and emboldened them to express their opinions.

They were a truly inspiring group of young people and I left my visit feeling a little bit better about the state of the world.