what kind of pirate are you?

This post is written by Lexi Earl.

Late last year, I had the opportunity to see Coriolanus at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. It was a spectacular performance, and I was completely immersed in the story and the characters. I found myself paying particular attention to the fight scenes. I watched as the actors moved together in the fight, as a dance. One actor moved, the other responded. This obviously happened very quickly and with much violence, but it was mesmerizing. I noticed how the sounds of smacking and slapping happened, and the way the actors’ feet moved in sequence with the other.

I can only pin my sudden awareness of the fight choreography to my visit in the same week to Welcombe Hills School. Welcombe Hills is a special school, and while I was visiting, the Key Stage 3 pupils were learning about Peter Pan. The school is putting on a production of Peter later this year (in aid of Great Ormond Street Hospital) and the pupils I observed were learning about fight scenes. Rather than Roman generals fighting with their fists, these would be pirates and lost boys clashing with swords. Jo Bradley, the Drama teacher, and Cassie Gibb, the Drama teaching assistant, were schooling the pupils on the details of fight choreography.

Cassie explained to the pupils, “as actors, you need to think of a fight like a dance. No one is going to be surprised; it is choreographed. A sword fight is action, reaction.”

To begin, Jo and Cassie illustrated the physical movements they wanted the pupils to learn – moving backwards and forwards in response to the person facing you, and swooshing your arms around to chop off someone’s head. “It’s got to come as if it is slicing his head off,” Cassie explained to some pupils.

The students got to practice in pairs during class. First they concentrated on getting their feet to move easily forwards and backwards in reaction to their partner. One foot stayed cemented and unmoving while the other moved in response, some pupils naturally leaning back as their opponent tried to stab them in the stomach. Some students giggled as they got their bodies to react, others made swooshing, swishing noises of a sword cutting through the air.

The class then shared their work with each other, each pair taking a turn to demonstrate their movements. “That’s tiptoeing,” Cassie said to one pair who hadn’t quite gotten the foot movement down yet. “What kind of pirate are you?” she asked amusedly.

Next they practiced thrusting the sword forward to stab their opponent in the stomach, still trying to get their foot movement correct. Once they had both their feet and the two different arm movements sorted, they were asked to choreograph their own fight scene in pairs. They could choose whatever sequence they wished to do. “For example, you can go head head middle head,” Cassie explained. The pupils had to do five different actions from the two different sword movements. “This is a fight sequence,” Cassie explained, “swing to the head and duck, step forwards and thrust the sword forward, the other steps backwards. Work out how the fight is going to end.”

The children were given time to work out their fights, moving around the room and discussing their strategies in pairs. Then they were all invited to show their fights to the group. Each fight was different, and there was much enjoyment and laughter as they worked. Many fights ended in a death scene, the injured party falling dramatically (and often heavily) to the floor.

When everyone had demonstrated their work, Jo asked how fighting relates to the story of Peter Pan. “The pirates and lost boys fight,” a student explained. When I later saw the actors on the stage fighting, I saw how the basics that were being taught to the students applied to the professional stage.

walk with me: social media, theatre companies, and young people

This post is written by Lexi Earl, on her visit to Treviglas Community College.

What do you think of when you think of a theatre company? Do you think literally of a theatre? Of performers? Of stage design, sound and lighting? Of plays you have seen that have stayed with you? I certainly do. But while I was visiting Treviglas College in Newquay, Cornwall, I was shown how narrow my understanding is of what theatre companies potentially might do. On the Friday of my visit, Sam Colborne, the Head of Drama, was also hosting the Kneehigh Theatre Company – a world-renowned theatre company from Cornwall. But Kneehigh were not there to deliver a performance, or a workshop on acting or directing. They were there to record stories for their new app, and to provide the young people with a workshop on social media, and its use in a performing arts company.

The app Kneehigh have developed is called “Walk with Me”. It provides visitors to Cornwall with a walking tour of a local area – so far the company has done walks for Megavissey and St Austell, with the students from Treviglas actively involved in the development of a walk for Newquay. There is a walk for Bodmin underway too. While you walk around the area, following the map, you can listen to local stories, legends and myths. In the case of the Newquay walk, this is narrated by the students and staff at Treviglas College (alongside performers from Kneehigh). As well as recording the various stories throughout the day, the students and Kneehigh talked about the purpose and use of social media from a theatre company perspective.

Charlotte Bond, the General Manager and Director of Rambles, explained to the students that marketing and communications are hugely important for performers, because people need to know about, and share in your show. If you’ve rehearsed and have your performance ‘super polished’, she explained, but then no one comes, that’s it. You’ve lost your opportunity. It is not like a piece of fine art that you can display and then leave. “The performance happens there and then, in the moment,” she told the group. Dann Carroll, the Communications Assistant, led the workshop and explained how the marketing for the app would work. He explained that one of his main jobs is social media and so they the focus of the workshop was on how Kneehigh use social media. He ran through the various platforms and asked what platforms the students made use of. Kneehigh mainly focus on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. He told the students that you should focus on one to three platforms for engaging with the audiences. “Once you have an audience, you have to keep that audience”, he explained. The company want to keep people engaged in the app.

Dann explained about posting; selling; and creating engaging contact, including posting items specifically for ‘friends’. He showed students the Kneehigh marketing plan for the year, with the show deadlines on. Then he showed them the social media plan. “This spread sheet organizes the platforms, shows how often you’re posting, and what is being posted. To keep the audience engaged, you don’t want to keep posting the same things. It is really important to plan what to put on social media,” he told the students. Dann talked about knowing the Facebook algorithm and understanding what is being championed at any particular moment. So, for example, Facebook doesn’t like links in posts. Dann explained that he doesn’t look for likes on Instagram. Rather, he is looking at what people are saying and the comments they leave on a post.

The idea with the app then is for people to share their own stories while doing the walk; for example, taking photos on the walk, and then uploading it to a platform with a specific hashtag. Dann explained that you need to consider paid social media because it is cheap and can have big engagement rewards. Kneehigh use paid advertising for shows to target specific audiences. For example, they have used paid advertising to target an audience for their ‘Friends’ scheme.

The group then moved on to discussing things that do not work on social media – blurry pictures, or not posting enough, before they began to build an audience profile for the app. They thought about how to describe the app [innovative, different, clever, compelling] before talking about the type of person who might download and then use the app. They needed to create a character that they could then design their marketing campaign around.

This was a most unusual and innovative collaboration between the school, the students, and the theatre company. The experience of observing the workshop between Kneehigh and the students has stayed with me while I’ve been thinking about the place of arts education in England. It provides a great example of how theatre companies are innovators, forward thinkers of how they might contribute to their local communities and to their local economies. Companies like Kneehigh prove how theatre is not just about acting and performing.

‘If I ran the country…’

This post is written by Lexi Earl on her trip to Sacred Heart Catholic School for Girls.

As I was walking to catch a train at Newcastle central station, I started to listen to an episode of Desert Island Discs. I’m not sure about you but I find Desert Island Discs very comforting, the combination of music and life stories is soothing. This particular episode was a conversation with Paul Greengrass, director of (amongst other things) The Bourne series of films. In her opening monologue, Kirsty Young (the show’s host) quotes Paul as saying, “I don’t want people watching from the outside, I want them to be participants. Drama can take you there in a way that the facts can’t”. Paul went on to explain that it is the immersion in cinema that transports you to a particular place, and lets you into people’s lives, and (I think) allows you to empathise with them.

Sac H drama board

But it was the line ‘drama can take you there in a way that the facts can’t’ that stuck with me on my journey home. I had just spent two days at Sacred Heart Catholic School for Girls, talking to drama students and drama teachers. The girls I spoke to were very aware of the power of drama to explain events, or alter people’s lives, or teach them skills that they couldn’t necessarily learn in other classes.

In our conversation, some of the Year 12 girls explained the importance they felt Drama had beyond the standard curriculum.

“If I ran the country […] I would make Drama compulsory. I don’t know if I’d put it at the same standard as Maths and English because not everyone likes Drama, but the skills you get from it are so important. And people undermine Drama and say it is a soft subject. But everyone who does Drama knows the amount of work and stress. I hate it when people say that [it’s easy]. It’s horrible sometimes. But when you’re little and you’re shy, Drama is the only way you can break out your shell. […] And in fact not everyone is good at Maths and English and Science. And the only thing they’re good at is the arts, and people tend to neglect those kids who only can do the arts.”

The girls identified skills that Drama had helped them learn; that they thought would be valuable in their future lives.

“The skills that you use like team work. That will help you in your career because there are a lot of skills you need.”

“Public speaking. You learn so much about diction and volume. The speed you’re meant to go at so people can understand you. And if you don’t do Drama you’ve missed out.”

The students I spoke to at Sacred Heart understood that Drama was not just about learning plays, or acting scenes. Drama gave them skills that they could then apply to later life. While this may not have been what Greengrass meant when he said ‘drama can take you there in a way that the facts can’t’, his comment helped me see the importance of Drama as more than simply a subject at school. Drama has ‘real world’ value. The girls at Sacred Heart knew that.

a wall, a lion and a moon

I have been immersed in Shakespeare for the past few weeks. Many of the schools I have visited as part of our Year 3 research visits have been RSC partnership schools and so I have been watching students learn sword-fighting, talking to young people about their participation in productions of The Tempest, or observing them devise stage directions for particular scenes. This is all fairly usual daily work.

A few weeks ago, while visiting Towers School in Kent, I had the opportunity to watch several groups of students perform scenes from different plays as part of their last English lessons before half-term. Becca Gardner, an English teacher and leader of the RSC work at the school, explained that allowing students to perform was a lovely way to end their 6-week study of a particular play.

The Year 7 classes had been studying A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is one of my favourite plays, and they were performing one of my favourite scenes – the play within the play, put on by The Mechanicals, that can be a masterful portrayal of comedy. I have seen A Midsummer Night’s Dream performed on several occasions but watching the Year 7s understand the comical aspects of the scene and master the language was truly enthralling.

The class took place within the school hall, which has a large stage and elevated seating area for the audience. The students were not intimidated by this theatre size nor by performing in front of their peers. They were all given about 15 minutes to rehearse the scene in their groups, and were then invited to share their performance with the class.

During rehearsals, the room was full of movement, laughter, dramatic falling, negotiation, exclamations, pulling, pushing, dashing, lying on the floor… On stage, the students were a joy to watch. In one of the first performances, Wall had to be bodily carried off stage by the other actors, so heavy was his imaginary wall costume. In one group, Moonshine was pulled around the stage by an imaginary dog, interrupting other scenes as he dashed past. Then he stood enthusiastically in front of Pyramus who was trying his best to deliver his final speech as an eager Moonshine held the ‘moonlight’ in his face. Eventually Pyramus grew so frustrated that he shoved Moonshine out of the way so the audience might watch his dramatic death.

In another group, Wall spoke in a high squeaky voice and took ballerina steps off the stage (going the wrong way), much to his audience’s amusement. In this group, Thisby whispered audibly to Pyramus in the final scene, “just die already!” One group had actors wandering around looking lost, even after the Wall had started to speak, as if they weren’t quite sure whether the performance had started or not. Pyramus died, then awoke and died again, then woke again and died once more. Even as they were taking their bows, Pyramus remained in character, collapsing and dying once more. They ended with a forlorn Moonshine on a quest for his lost dog. “Seriously, though,” Moonshine asked the audience, “has anyone seen my dog?”

I laughed so much during these performances that tears ran down my face and the young people in the audience looked at myself and Becca (who was also in tears of laughter) with wide, surprised eyes.

The students use of asides, gazing knowingly at the audience, physical movement, expressions, and complete immersion as The Mechanicals playing Pyramus and Thisby spoke to a deeper understanding of the play, and the power of comedy. They all really understood the humour in the scene. None were intimidated by the language. They were completed immersed in the lesson and fully willing to embrace the ridiculousness of the play.

What a wonderful way to end a six-week block of Shakespeare lessons! If anyone tells you Shakespeare is boring, or serious, or requires a lot of annotated texts to understand, I urge you to send them to Towers School, where the young people will quite happily prove you wrong.

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.