Shakespeare Schools Foundation – Who We Are
I liked performing in front of everyone because it helped me face my fears.
I’m Education Manager for Shakespeare Schools Foundation (SSF) - a cultural education charity which uses Shakespeare to give young people the confidence to take on new challenges, to overcome fears and to find new horizons.
It’s a great job: I get to design curriculum schemes of work for the teaching of Shakespeare at primary, secondary and special schools, devise and deliver in-school pupil workshops, and assist my colleagues with the running of the world’s largest youth drama festival.
Our festival sees 1,000 schools perform an abridged Shakespeare production in 136 theatres up and down the country. It’s non-competitive and it brings whole communities into theatres.
I know this because, before joining SSF, I was a teacher director myself. I participated in the Festival with my Year 6 classes for five consecutive years, watching them tackle ridiculously silly comedy sequences in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and intense Danish tragedy in Hamlet. If you think that ten year old children couldn’t possibly ‘get’ Shakespeare then just spend a few minutes in an SSF rehearsal room and you’ll see that Shakespeare’s timeless stories are as relevant and engaging to today’s school kids as they were to sixteenth century groundlings at the Globe theatre! My rehearsal room was usually either full of raucous laughter (cue ten year old Mark strutting his yellow-stockinged stuff as Malvolio to Right Said Fred’s I’m Too Sexy) or unbearably moving scenes (witness eleven year old Millie’s appeal to the Plebeians over the body of Julius Caesar as she discovered the most unkindest cut of all)
I was recently lucky enough to work with another teacher director as he readied his SSF production of Macbeth at the Contact Theatre, and prepared for an SSF flashmob at the Music and Drama Education Expo at the Manchester Hilton. This article tells you a little about that story…
Our Flagship Festival
“Because of SSF, I was able to bond with lots of people and make friends with people I never thought I would” - Poppy, student, Pontypridd
The Festival story starts with “Shakespeare: The Animated Tales” - 30-minute animations broadcast on the BBC and S4C in the early 1990s. The very first Shakespeare Schools Festival was made up of just eight secondary schools, using the Animated Tales’ scripts at The Torch Theatre, Milford Haven. Fast forward seventeen years and that seedling is a mighty oak: the Guinness World Record for the most Shakespeare performances at the same time set and 280,000 young participants so far!
Teachers register their pupils to perform, receive training on how to direct their Shakespeare play, abridged scripts and associated resources. Pupils get to meet another cast at their company workshop, working with expert facilitators to tweak and fine tune their shows in readiness for their big night on the professional stage. In addition to improving literacy, young people gain vital life skills, such as collaboration, empathy, aspiration and confidence. It’s a transformative experience and one that makes Shakespeare accessible to everyone, taking his stories from stage to page for young people of different ages and backgrounds.
The Scottish Play in Eccles!
When you durst do it – THEN you were a man!
SSF’s Kate Hopewell is directing ten year old Nancy (Lady Macbeth) as she bawls ferociously at Ruby (Macbeth) across the school hall. The story might be four hundred years old, but they have no difficulty bringing these archetypal characters to life.
Meanwhile, under the watchful eye of teacher director Peter Webster, young Andre (an alumnus of the 2016 SSF festival) is resurrecting his Brutus: a rhetorical tour de force in which he explains the actions of he and his co-conspirators for the murder of Julius Caesar.
These youngsters from St Mary’s Primary in Eccles are preparing a flashmob piece for the Music and Drama Education Expo at Manchester’s Hilton hotel. Just a couple of days later, it’s planned that Andre will burst into a room of delegates and address them as Brutus,
As Caesar loved me, I weep for him. As he was valiant, I honour him. But, as he was ambitious, I slew him.
On the day itself, the room is so jam-packed that Andre can’t open the doors to make his entrance. Unflustered and entirely composed, he simply waits for the first delegates to leave the room. In the cavernous, high-ceilinged hallway, he bellows out his first lines
Romans, Countrymen and Lovers…
and the entire hotel floor seems to fall silent to listen.
Just as this assault on their senses nears its conclusion, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth appear, arguing about the killing of Duncan from opposite sides of a gangway.
It takes real guts to perform in a bustling and noisy space, packed full of over four hundred delegates, but these youngsters take it in their stride.
A few weeks later, I’m lucky enough to watch their technical and dress rehearsal at the Contact Theatre in Manchester, ready for their SSF performance night. It’s a wonderful show. I spot some movement and choreography choices that director Peter Webster has taken from our teacher-director workshops, and some incredible visual storytelling (such as red ribbons dangling from daggers to signify Duncan’s flowing blood). The performances are great: a true ensemble committed to telling a remarkable story. I keep interrupting Peter to tell him how great the show is (probably very irritating as he is busy with the theatre technicians, plotting light and sound design). When I point out that one of the narrators has a particularly engaging delivery, Peter proudly tells me that the young boy has English as an Additional Language. Backstage, Banquo beams as I tell him that his command of Shakespeare’s language made it sound like he was speaking in entirely modern vernacular.
As I say goodbye to Peter and his cast at the Contact and wish them well for their evening show, I’m reminded of the pride I felt every year as an SSF teacher-director and the incredible sense of achievement felt by each and every cast member at the end of a successful performance. We did it! And perhaps Mr Webster is already thinking – as I did every year – “What play shall I tackle next year, and how soon can I register for 2018?”