Shakespeare for today

Eight years after leaving Forest School, Paapa Essiedu is the RSC’s 2016 Hamlet at Stratford-upon-Avon. With this year’s HMC Conference coming to Stratford, Antony Faccinello, Warden of Forest, reflects on teaching Shakespeare and asks Paapa about his education in theatre – before RSC Director of Education, Jacqui O’Hanlon, invites schools to embrace rehearsal room pedagogies.

Shakespeare in the classroom

Antony Faccinello (Forest School)

Teaching any subject causes us repeatedly to ask the essential question: is what I’m doing effective? For English teachers, teaching Shakespeare is the acid test. We all want our pupils to love Shakespeare, and with powerfully dramatic language as the medium, anything less than pupils being excited to get stuck into the next act can feel like failure. Making the language come alive and be accessible is the English teacher’s art. In my first years in the English classroom, I sometimes felt defeated by the class’s lastlesson- of-the-afternoon, fragmented half-hour  progress through the text.

I soon realised that pushing desks aside and getting pupils on their feet, even if just to show who is on stage, made all the difference. With non-examined classes, the freedom to experiment and to edit the text comes into its own; pupils themselves can identify the powerrelations in a scene and select and perform key lines that show who is in control. Today’s editions of the plays are full (sometimes too much so) of dramatic activities that help pupils think about such subtexts and alternative interpretations.

However, the old truths are universal and constant: once pupils tune into the direct link between Shakespeare’s dramatic language and the force of feeling conveyed by it, they start to sense the thrill of vicarious emotions. If the claims for literature are true, if it does expand our capacity for empathy, then it must be all the more so in drama where we can utter the words and experience the thoughts of someone else: the character whose emotions are distilled and concentrated through their
language. Learning some lines by heart for homework and internalising the iambic rhythms with their forward pulse is heady stuff indeed.

As Paapa Essiedu attests from his own experience of Shakespeare at school, it’s “by doing it and playing it and bringing it to life” that we fully understand it.

Theatre, education and the world of acting: Antony Faccinello and Paapa Essiedu in conversation.

Paapa Essiedu (Forest School, 2001-2008)

AF: Congratulations on your role in Hamlet; were you nervous ahead of the reviews?

PE: Yes, we had nine weeks before opening night, so we rehearsed non-stop for most of that time, but you never know how people will take what you do. It doesn’t matter how good or bad you think you are, once you’re on the stage you’re out there for people to see. I find reviews a strange thing as they’re an assessment of one night early on in a run, but it’s always good when they’re positive and they encourage people to come and see the play.

AF: During your time at Forest School you took part in the school productions of Macbeth and Othello; did this experience help set you on your acting career path?

PE: Definitely, I remember studying Shakespeare in English and I wasn’t a fan, but by doing it and playing it and bringing it to life, it helped me understand it so much more. My drama teachers were great; I was taught by Mr (Paul) Oliver, who was Head of Drama. He was really passionate about drama and a fantastic teacher. He had a real appetite and love for the theatre and plays, which you could see in his teaching. When you’ve got someone with that level of passion, it’s impossible for it not to become infectious, so I’ve got a lot to be thankful to him for.

AF: What else do you value from your schooldays?

PE: I really enjoyed being at Forest: it’s a very interesting place to be a pupil. I loved how multicultural it is, with pupils and teachers from lots of different backgrounds. In some ways Forest helped set me up for life. I also think it’s vital that independent schools offer bursaries and scholarships; I may not have been able to go to Forest otherwise, so it’s crucial for people from less fortunate backgrounds to have these opportunities.

AF: Do you think the arts get adequate coverage in the school curriculum?

PE: I think for any school it’s really important to promote the arts along with subjects like maths and science, because education is about having a well-rounded appreciation of life and the world. You learn a lot more about the emotional life through the arts, so it’s good that schools offer these opportunities.

AF: How can schools ensure diversity in pupils taking part in school productions?

PE: I think that can be achieved by having a more open-minded approach to teaching the arts. Obviously Shakespeare is something that can be performed by any gender and ethnicity, but I think it would be great to see schools tell stories from Africa, India, the Middle East or South America. It’s a beautiful thing living in London with all the cultures and communities from across the world, so I think our work should mirror that.

AF: Did theatre trips feature as part of your education?

PE: Doing Drama at A level included seeing a set number of productions and that brought my first exposure to professional theatre. The memorable ones were Othello at the Donmar, The Country Wife at the Old Vic, and seeing Complicite for the first time at the Barbican. Visiting the theatre is not usual in a lot of cultures; it was true in my case being a firstgeneration immigrant living in Walthamstow. Added to that, tickets are expensive so it is important that schools take advantage of discounted tickets and introduce young people to theatre.

AF: Is playing to audiences with a large proportion of school groups a challenge?

PE: Making Shakespeare more accessible to a wide range of audiences is integral to the production. Young people in the audience are the next generation of theatre goers, so inspiring and stimulating them matters; they are the most important members of the audience. With a Year 11 audience, you don’t play down to them or patronise them; you have to respect their intelligence.

AF: Any tips for pupils faced with learning Shakespeare quotations for exams?

PE: Hamlet is three hours long so it’s been an exciting challenge learning all the lines. Not having done A level English literature, my relation to the text is a little different. I appreciate students’ difficulty because the lines are so specific. You can’t paraphrase Shakespeare.

AF: What advice would you give to a pupil thinking about going into the world of acting?

PE: Make sure you want to do it! Have a think about whether it’s something you really want. Don’t become an actor because you want to become famous; it’s a long and hard road. Watch loads of television, films and plays. Join the school or local theatre company. Do as much as you can to immerse yourself in the world of it, and I think from that you will be able to know if it’s something you really want to do.

A pedagogy for Shakespeare: creating a rehearsal ethos in the classroom

Jacqui O’Hanlon (Director of Education at the Royal Shakespeare Company)

Many of us encounter Shakespeare for the first time at school.

Shakespeare is probably the most prescribed author in education systems across the world. Responses to a survey conducted by the RSC and the British Council suggest that 50% of schoolchildren across the world are encountering Shakespeare at school;1 it is hard to imagine another artist coming close to this. And school is also probably where we decide whether Shakespeare, theatre-going and theatre-making are things we feel confident to engage in and want to find out more about, or feel excluded from.

The RSC places a special emphasis on sharing the inheritance of Shakespeare’s work with children and young people. We want to do that in ways that help them form a life-long relationship with our house playwright, theatre-going and theatremaking. We feel the way to do this is through using the kinds of approaches that actors and directors use in rehearsals. We therefore talk a lot about the classroom as rehearsal room2 and what happens to the quality and rigour of teaching and learning when classrooms embrace rehearsal room pedagogies.

RSC rehearsal rooms are essentially places of exploration and shared discovery in which a company of actors and their director work together to bring Shakespeare’s plays to life. To do this successfully they need to have a deep understanding of the text. Actors explore apposition, metaphor, metre and pulse, line endings and word play. They experience how the shape and structure of the text offer clues to its deeper meaning. Crucially, they get the language “in the body” as they try out a whole range of interpretive possibilities and choices that are offered by the texts.

They explore the social and historical context in which the play is set, making discoveries about and connections between Shakespeare’s world, the worlds of the plays and our own world.

All of these ways of exploring text can and do take place in classrooms. We would argue that they are essential pre-requisites for uncovering the fullest possible range of interpretive choices available in any of Shakespeare’s plays – and for releasing their potential.

The plays can then do what all great works of art do: help us learn more about ourselves, each other and the world we live in. If they aren’t doing that, why are we still performing them? If our educational experiences of Shakespeare’s work aren’t doing that, why are we bothering with them?

When we see the plays as texts that require interpretation through performance, we are offered an astonishing range of learning opportunities. These are all encapsulated within a form of words but are an invitation to solve a wonderful and rather complex puzzle. We can all enjoy and meet the challenge of Shakespeare’s texts if we have the right tools. Finding clues in his language, nurturing our curiosity about words and developing confidence in our own powers of communication can all be achieved by working with his plays as living texts into which we breathe life – on stage or in the classroom.

1. RSC and British Council Research, 2012: Shakespeare: A Worldwide Classroom.

2. A phrase first coined by Shakespeare educator Rex Gibson.

This is an edited version of an article in issue 6 of HMC Insight Magazine. Click here to view the full article.