Joe Winston and Miles Tandy take playful approaches to ‘The Comedy of Errors’ with 4 to 11 year olds, at WORLDS TOGETHER – a conference hosted by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Tate Modern Gallery, in collaboration with the British Museum and the National Theatre, London, 6th – 8th September, 2012.

We, a dozen Conference delegates, are the 4 to 11 year olds, embarking on a 3 hour workshop with Joe Winston, Professor of Arts Education at Warwick University, and Miles Tandy, an RSC Education Lead Practitioner. ‘There are no right answers’, says Miles, but that doesn’t mean that we won’t discover what works best, what takes us most excitingly into the mysterious virtual reality we are exploring together – the world of Shakespeare’s play. It just means that everyone’s personal experiments and contributions will be received without censure, so we are free to let our minds and imaginations work. Released from the temptation to judge  and compare what our colleagues are doing and saying, the class moves along easily with a shared sense of purpose and full concentration on all the things we are being invited to do. We enjoy our own efforts and we also enjoy what the whole class is doing – as, importantly, Joe and Miles seem to as well. I know, from the first minute, that this is going to be active learning for us all, not teaching by demonstration, using a few of us to participate or illustrate, while  the rest watch and, perhaps, start to daydream or tune out. And, as all teachers who work as ‘animateurs’ know, in a class in which all are active and motivated,  energy does not spill out into disruption or distraction: it is constantly drawn back into the group, where it seems to build and intensify as the work goes on, so that, by the end of the session, we all have a sense of having deepened our experience, of having travelled, and of having reached conclusions. We are really ‘on to’ a lot of things about this play – its language, its characters and predicaments, its unique world. We do not have to pretend we are 4 to 11 year olds: we have processed, entirely in our own adult, ‘experienced’ ways,  the same activities that Joe and Miles would have provided for a class of young children.

So what were the things we actually did that took us into Shakespeare’s Ephesus, a town ‘full of cozenage’, peopled by ‘nimble jugglers…dark-working sorcerers… soul-killing witches…disguisèd cheaters…prating mountebanks, and many such libertines of sin’? How did we get into the story of the merchant Egeon and his long-lost wife, who, many years earlier had given birth to the identical Antipholus twins, each served by one of the identical Dromio twins, the whole family separated in a terrible storm at sea, when the children were infants? What did we do to experience loss, confusion, danger, comedy? First came activities to ‘meet and mix’, with collective ‘freedom of the space’ established, so we moved easily, ‘going’ and ‘stopping’ on command and ‘showing’, when asked, adjectives such as ‘happy’ and ‘fearful’ and images such as ‘twins’ and ‘shipwrecks’. Joe and Miles had chosen a ‘way in’ appropriate for 4-11 year olds (for us too), through emotions and  feelings which were already ours, from our own lives, but which very soon were acting as vectors taking us seamlessly into Shakepeares’s story and, vitally, his language. Soon we would be exploring themes such as twinning and confusion (playing ‘catch yourself out’ games to break habitual mind-body connexions) and, using tableaux, the events of the ‘back story’ to the play. Part of me, as teacher, was noting the skilful adaptation of a range of  drama activities, so that tried and tested active pedagogy could be marshalled to transport us, our minds, bodies and imaginations alert and responsive, into the particular world of this play, The Comedy of Errors. For example, there were games requiring the whole group to collaborate (such as speaking phrases or lines from the text to ‘save’ those about to be banished) and activities such as ‘Word Carpet’, which  involved everyone in contributing to the creation of a store of words and phrases (written by all of us on slips of paper), to be used in an imaginative ‘guided tour’ (carried out, simultaneously, in pairs) of the mysterious town of Ephesus.

You can learn more about the techniques, structure and activities of the workshop in Beginning Shakespeare 4-11 (Joe Winston and Miles Tandy, London, David Fulton, 2012), for what we did was based on an example from Joe and Miles’s excellent book – but to finish, I want to return to the personal experience of doing the workshop. I always find it refreshing and revealing – and often rather sobering too – to take part in the sort of activities we expect our students to carry out. Teacherly authority suspended and the course of events unknown and outside my control, I am now just one of the group, eager to make something with that group, but, perhaps, a little apprehensive. How will I do, will I look foolish… but that doesn’t matter, does it?

We are a few minutes into the workshop. Complete the sentence, Miles says, beginning:  ‘I am confused…’  We go round in turn. Everyone speaks, pretty much on cue. Some answers are funny, everyone seems to have a ready response. I find that I do not. I watch the powder trail fizz towards me and realise I am really engaged by the question and that it will not be long before I must answer. It’s my turn and I pause, not knowing quite what to say. I am confused by the question – not because I don’t understand it, but because there’s something hidden I want to articulate, but ‘I’ve lost the key’. I find myself saying, lamely, ‘ I’m confused by irreconcilables’. So dry and theoretical, so unappealingly lacking in the concrete or illustrative! Is that it? Isn’t confusion always about that? I know that I love truth games – there’s a kind of therapeutic excitement in searching for something about yourself that you only half know (or only half admit), but I’m also very conscious that this is just a quick circle game, so I must speak and quickly let go of the words I have, somewhat to my own surprise, just  spoken. But much further back in my mind, there is something else resonating – the first time I had to make a choice in class, along with the other 5-year olds, the ‘Infants’, as we were called, on our first day at the Village School. We had all been given cardboard boxes in which to keep our pencils and note-books. Then the teacher said ‘now, all of you, come up to the table at the front and choose a picture’. There was a rush to choose. I sat at my desk and watched, wondering what the other children were doing. Then I became aware of Miss Bullard standing above me. ‘You haven’t chosen a picture. Come with me and choose.’ I loved birds and there was a picture of a Green Woodpecker left. I chose that, something connected with my own world prior to this strange school-room, and she helped me to paste it onto my box. It is good, I think, for us, as teachers, to find ourselves back where are students are – some inhibited within their group, some nervous about contributing, some bemused by the need to make snap decisions and choices. This is why the ‘drama way’ is so important, for not only can it provide the most open  and stimulating of learning environments – it can also be the most reassuring, the most secure. I know that I am in one of those learning environments now – it will be challenging, but it will be safe and it will build confidence. ‘Come with me and choose.’

Back to Joe and Miles: soon, in groups of 3 or 4, we are making images, speaking lines we have been given from the play. Then we all add another image and another, building up representations of the story. At first our group only just completes its image and its actions before it is time to show the result, but as we get used to working together we become more confident. Finally, all the groups  combine to run all the little scenes in sequence, without pause or introduction. This is very much how I like to work – everyone as both audience and actors. We have created a piece of living theatre for our own delight – and, of course, instruction. Joe is pleased with us. ‘We could take this performance outside into the Turbine Hall now,’ he says, ‘and people would look at it and enjoy it.’ We are proud of ourselves. Once again I reflect on the experience of making choices to deadlines, this time in a group, and also what has been going on in my own mind during this exercise: how, perhaps, I mentally resist quick solutions, because I want to reflect and explore new ideas, but, conversely, how I also have a store of drama teacher’s ‘quick fixes’. I am wary of these. I hate the idea of coming forward too quickly or too strongly, of imposing my view. I hang back, interested in what others have to say, but conscious that I want our group to produce something that is good, that works well. As always, I am fascinated by the matter of how we debate, and make choices, with others, and how, as teachers, we set up learning situations which involve complex group dynamics. When the workshop moves on to the next exercise, creating the strange town, I forget all these thoughts, for now, off the text, we are invited to devise tricks and incidents that might beguile a visiting stranger. I love seeing what we all get up to and I feel blessedly  free to add to the entertainment myself. Joe adds in our ‘word carpet’ and we all, I think, have a very good time. What is more, we would be capable, I know, of discussing all the work in terms of insights gained about Shakespeare’s play.

There are other activities I could describe (like Joe’s masterly story-telling, using his ‘Whoosh!’ technique, which makes lovely, fluid use of the class, while allowing the teacher’s knowledge and skill full rein, to become available to all), but when I think back for a final defining image, I find I am sneeking a sideways look at our teachers. They look amused and pleased, for their ‘playful approaches’ to The Comedy of Errors have shown (it is written all over our faces) just how effectively profit can be mixed with pleasure in the active classroom.

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