A Summer School in Italy to inspire teachers, students and Shakespeare enthusiasts

Posted February 26th, 2014 by James Stredder and filed in Events, Pedagogy, Teaching approaches and techniques

A Summer School in Italy to inspire teachers, students and Shakespeare enthusiasts

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James Stredder finds a wealth of exciting approaches to teaching the plays and poems in plans for the ‘Shakespeare in Italy  Summer School’, which will take place in Urbino from the 12th to the 26th July, and which will feature four leading Shakespearian directors and performers, Josie Lawrence, Bill Alexander, Michael Pennington and Martin Best. All are passionate about Shakespeare and all have worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company – three of them having spent substantial parts of their careers with the RSC. Josie Lawrence will lead work on ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, Bill Alexander on ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and Michael Pennington on ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Martin Best will perform his lecture-recital, ‘Shakespeare’s Music Hall’ – and teach a seminar on the Sonnets.  

Whether as teachers or students, we know how important it is that our subject is alive and active in our imaginations. Whenever we speak Shakespeare ‘aloud’, or read him in the theatre of the mind, our creative imaginations allow us to experience this living quality, but we also experience it in a host of other ways – through performance, for example, whether in the workshop, rehearsal room, theatre, cinema or concert hall, and through contextual knowledge of various kinds. Both performance and contextual knowledge feature in the teaching approaches taken by the Summer School and its tutors. Josie Lawrence, Bill Alexander and Michael Pennington will share their extensive experience of working on a wide range of highly successful productions, and Martin Best will offer a fascinating case-study of the understanding that work on Shakespeare’s music, and the culture and music of the Italian Renaissance, can bring to the texts.

The Summer School brings together practitioners whose working lives have been devoted to performance, especially to realisation of the works of Shakespeare, in the theatre and in the concert hall. Their teaching sessions will focus on lively and creative approaches to Shakespearean texts (with the option for students of participating actively or of observing the ways in which performance evolves), but they will also set out to discover what part Italy and ‘the Italian context’ play in the appreciation and understanding of Shakespeare.

Classical history and civilization, and contemporary Renaissance Italy, had a huge influence on the life and culture of Shakespeare’s England. Shakespeare himself was one of numerous playwrights and poets whose work shows just how extensive this influence was, but perhaps we do not always feel and understand it with our creative imaginations, as we work on texts. What does it mean that Shakespeare is ‘a man of the Renaissance’ and how might ‘the Italian legacy’ come to life in one’s reading of the plays? It’s a brilliant idea to invite outstanding Shakespearean artists to consider these questions, as they share their professional knowledge and personal working methods in a study of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and three of his ‘Italian’ plays. This is what a new theatre company, Shakespeare in Italy, set up early in 2013 by English actors Julian Curry and Mary Chater, in association with Italian theatre manager Sandro Pascucci has planned for its 2014 summer school in the World Heritage Site of Urbino, one of the great Italian cities of the Renaissance. The centrepiece of Urbino is the early 15th Century Palazzo Ducale, the fabulous creation of Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino from 1444 to 1482. Watch this short video, about Urbino’s Renaissance origins, to be reminded of the world of the Italian princes, dukes and courtiers imagined so frequently in Early Modern English drama. Summer School classes will be held in the University of Urbino (founded 1506) and there will be plenty of time for art, music, sight-seeing and relaxation in this wonderful place. Mary Chater, who has performed frequently with the RSC and the NT, and  is also a teacher and a Blue Badge Guide, will lead a varied programme of cultural events in and around the city. The region’s historic theatres are gems of period design & architecture. There are plans for the Summer School to visit some of them – and to rehearse scenes onstage.

JOSIE LAWRENCE is particularly well-qualified to be teaching  the sessions on Much Ado About Nothing, having played both leading roles, possibly the only actress in the world to have done this. She starred as Beatrice at the Manchester Royal Exchange, for which she won the Manchester Evening News award for Best Actress, and as Benedick in the all-female production at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2004. For the RSC, Josie Lawrence  played Katharine in Gail Edwards’s 1995 production of The Taming of the Shrew, receiving a Dame Peggy Ashcroft award for Best Actress. She is also a talented singer (take a look at this clip of her singing Mozart with Lesley Garrett) and a popular comedian and television personality. She is especially well known for her enormously inventive and entertaining work over 18 years with the improvisational troupe, The Comedy Store Players; for her appearances in the Channel Four tv series Whose Line Is It Anyway?; and, more recently, for playing  Manda Best in the BBC’s EastEnders. But on a number of occasions she has made her unbounded enthusiasm for Shakespeare very clear. In an interview in 2001 with Terri Paddock, for instance, when she was starring in The King and I at the London Palladium, she named Shakespeare as her favourite playwright and Hamlet as the role she would most like to play. Asked about the highlight of her career, she replied  ‘reading a sonnet during Shakespeare’s birthday celebrations at the church in Stratford-upon-Avon.’

Conference participants can be sure that Josie Lawrence will bring a wide and very stimulating range of approaches to her teaching. In a recent email to me, she wrote of her excitement about the Summer School and her special affection for Much Ado:  

I adore this play for its great wit, complex relationships and that wonderful dip into darkness. I’ll be exploring all these factors during our three days together in beautiful Italy. We will obviously be concentrating on Shakespeare’s text – but expect a little improvising to!

BILL ALEXANDER will be teaching The Merchant of Venice, which he directed at Stratford  in 1987, with Anthony Sher as Shylock. Bill Alexander has directed a great number of the plays, to widespread acclaim. He was Resident, and then Associate Director, at the RSC, from 1977 to 1992 and he continued to direct Shakespeare as part of his work as Artistic Director of the Birmingham Rep, from 1992 to 2001. In 2004/5 he returned to the RSC to direct David Bradley in Titus Andronicus and Corin Redgrave in  King Lear. His most recent Shakespeare was a production of Othello in 2012, for NWCTC in Portland, Oregon. I asked him to comment on the approach he would be taking at the Summer School. He began by saying that he will work with the class, as if they are ‘the cast, stage management and design team all rolled into one’. Though drawing on his extensive study of the play, and his experience of directing it, he will not set out with fixed ideas, but, as in the theatre, will ‘see where the work takes us’.

BA:   I think what I’ll be trying to do over my three days is take the participants through a sort of speeded up version of the rehearsal process. I shall begin by discussing the play – its text, social/historical context, characters, place in the canon, performance history and so on.

He then plans to go on to ‘the table work of the first week or so of production.’

BA: This will involve analysis of character and meaning, gradually leading to movement and the evolution of the physical side of the production. There will be discussion of topics raised, on the relationship of the group to the play, the unique problems the text raises, the question of casting and the relationship of performers to the text and so on – for instance I’d like to explore what happens when modern dress and Renaissance thought meet -also the chemistry between highly poetic language and modern Freudian notions of character and sub-text. Really I suppose, it’s all about that unique Shakespearean meeting place between Naturalism and Magic; or realism and trickery!

To achieve a common experience  of the text, he plans ‘a collective slow reading of the play, with scene by scene discussion and constant changing of roles’. This will be followed by close readings and analysis of selected scenes (with discussion of issues of staging, movement and stage formats) – and workshop staging of the scenes. There will be workshops on: ‘Movement and Text’ and ‘Character: Shakespeare to Chekhov, Magic to Method’. Finally, he will illustrate differences of directorial technique, by giving a master-class on Antonio’s first speech, with Summer School Director Julian Curry, who played Antonio in Greg Doran’s 1997 production for the RSC.  On one evening during the three-day study, a film version of the play will be screened.


MICHAEL PENNINGTON, who played Mercutio in Trevor Nunn’s production for the RSC back in 1976, will be teaching Romeo and Juliet. Michael has played numerous Shakepearean roles, including Hamlet, Timon of Athens, Angelo and Berowne for the RSC and  Coriolanus, Macbeth, Leontes, Prince Hal/Henry V and Richard II for The English Shakespeare Company, which he co-founded with Michael Bogdanov in 1986. Most recently he played Antony at Chichester (2012) and John of Gaunt for the RSC (2013), getting outstanding reviews for both. Michael’s work as a director includes productions of Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as two celebrated one-man shows, Anton Chekhov and Sweet William.  If you go to the personal website of Michael Pennington and click on ‘One Man Shows’, you can watch video excerpts from both.

At the moment, Michael is rehearsing in New York. (No sooner had he finished the London run of Richard II at the Barbican, before Christmas, than he turned his mind to playing the title role in King Lear for Theatre for a New Audience –opening in March). Last week he wrote to me to say that he is very much looking forward to Urbino. He plans to spend time with Summer School participants seeking out and clarifying the ‘special ambience’ of Romeo and Juliet. Like Bill Alexander, in his study of The Merchant, this will be a process of discovery. He will work key scenes with the class and then, as a climax to his three days teaching, he plans a ‘showcase’ to celebrate students’ work. Participants can expect special attention to the verse, including personal demonstrations from one of the great contemporary speakers of Shakespeare. They can also expect attention to the fascinating question of the intricate relationship between Shakespeare’s  biography and his art, about which Michael Pennington writes with great expertise in Sweet William (Nick Hern Books: 2012). Sweet William is also very much an actor’s book. His seven pages of commentary on the way the narrative of Romeo and Juliet unfolds, for example, is an imaginative telling, pointing up the knowledge and the awareness, the ‘all-round’ vision, actors must have if their playing is to live onstage and captivate their audience. Consider his discussion of the conditions in which the love of Romeo and Juliet attempts to survive:

MP: Since they have no internal faultline, the lovers have eventually to be defeated by a Shakespearian accident – a messenger unable to deliver a letter because of a suspected epidemic. And their rapture has always to compete with a mocking world, its cadences lapping against the ugly outcrops of Capulet and Tybalt, Mercutio’s obsessive debunking of romance and the ‘petit guignol’ Apothecary, ‘in tattered weeds, with overwhelming brows’, who sells Romeo his poison. The figure of the Nurse grounds much of the action in a day-to-day bustle of rope ladders and bad news, not to mention the need to rest her back before delivering her urgent messages. These are the cross-rhythms against which love has to hold its tempo.  (Sweet William, p.154)

So how does Michael Pennington plan to work on  Romeo and Juliet ? In an interview on acting and directing some years ago, he was asked about his approach to Shakespeare’s texts.

MP:   To some extent, it depends on the director or the style I am working with. I was brought up on Shakespeare, so I fortunately have a good working knowledge of all the plays, and that is completely different from someone who might come to the material fresh. It is difficult to generalize how you approach a text. You look for the sense of it. You explore it as you would a contemporary text. Either at the same time or possibly in a secondary stage, you begin to appreciate, as you would a piece in Mozart, the structure and the form from the outside. For example, why he’s placed one word at the end of a line rather than in the middle of the line. But, of course, as with Mozart, you find very quickly that the more you pay attention to Shakespeare’s form, the more certain matters of interpretation become clear to you. The clues are actually all in the sequence of the words on the page and the order Shakespeare has chosen to put them in.

In addition to the meticulous attention to form and craft that this passage implies, Michael Pennington also brings a profoundly philosophical – and political – approach to the text. Summer School participants can expect some lively debate.

MP: The English Shakespeare Company’s work was based on a conviction that everything in Shakespeare, however beautiful, is full of argumentation, and every line a point of view in a transfixing debate. So Romeo and Juliet is not just a beautiful love story but a bold question about whether love can change the world.  (Sweet William, p.154)


MARTIN BEST, associated for over 30 years with the Royal Shakespeare Company, as actor-singer, practical musician, composer and devisor of recital programmes, brings musical scholarship and an international reputation, to the Summer School in Urbino. His biography for the RSC’s 2005 revival of John Barton’s The Hollow Crown, for which he compiled and arranged the music, opens: ‘Martin Best is acknowledged as one of the world’s outstanding performers of ancient songs and ballads; for which the International Edison Award Committee dubbed him “the first great contemporary troubadour”.’

Martin’s contribution to the summer school will be threefold: he will perform his lecture-recital, Shakespeare’s Music Hall, he will teach a seminar on the Sonnets and he will contribute to Bill Alexander’s work on The Merchant of Venice. Recently I wrote to Martin, asking him to comment on the connection between his work as a musician, man of the theatre and educationist, and   the teaching approaches he plans to take in Urbino.

MB:  Well, when I was with the RSC performing the singing/acting parts in the plays and creating the recital programmes and composing for them and for main house productions, I sucked in what was going on around me all the time, from directors, actors (especially. Peggy Ashcroft) and composers like Guy Woolfenden. I did an awful lot of learning by doing and by osmosis, and because I was already a student of literature, it stuck. Working with Peter Brook on A Midsummer Night’s Dream was seminal, in that it showed me the ‘relevance’ of Shakespeare to one’s life. The whole experience opened up my thinking on Imagination. (I will build that into the sonnet workshop). The main thing I bring with me is a real understanding of Renaissance musical theory, by which music is not only something heard, but also something  perceived or sensed through what Richard II calls ‘the music of men’s lives’. Baldassare Castiglione, for example, who lived in Urbino, shows how the life of the courtier or gentle-man is essentially a set of behaviours and speech habits that reflect what we might call cosmic harmony, but which he would have just called ‘musica’.

Martin’s mention of Castiglione, who visited England in 1506, and wrote Il Libro del Cortegiano (The Book of the Courtier) between 1508 and 1518, furnishes an example of the kind of way that the Italian Summer School will deepen and enliven the knowledge and experience of those attending the course in Urbino. Castiglione’s book, which was translated into English by Sir Thomas Hoby in 1561, exerted a strong influence on the courtly ideals of Elizabeth’s reign. The ‘merry war’ of Beatrice and Benedick, in Much Ado About Nothing, parallels a similar display of wit in Castiglione’s book.

It is a great bonus for the Summer School that Martin Best, an outstanding performer and scholar of Renaissance music, should place Shakespeare at the centre of his artistic and intellectual life. In fact, his devotion to Shakespeare goes way beyond that:

MB: I can say that if Shakespeare is in my life and I in his, then life is complete. This is partly because of the companionship that was so much part of my life when I was in the RSC from 1964 to about 2006. My wife and I knew Stanley Wells in the early days of his career, before he became a professor and Director of the Shakespeare Institute. When we did productions in the RSC, we worked as a company, often spending whole nights talking about the meaning of lines, living with them, so that we could make up our own blank verse and play with his imagery. When, for example, Shakespeare references come up in ‘Times’ leaders, this means one has a special reference point that makes one’s whole life richer. The (technical) process of creation is something that is always close to the surface with Shakespeare, so that he is never far away from one’s mind and heart. Then there are things that only he can say. Plus there are the things that only he can do : he is so incredibly clever, and he brings off poetic coups, as in Sonnet 18,Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’, which he knows is brilliant and which he knows will endure for all time. He was a mould-breaker. And then, like Bach and Mozart, he had a direct line to what it is to be human. So when you are working with others who really love and know Shakespeare, you are part of a magic circle, which is why the Summer School staff want to come to Urbino, and learn and be happy together, in each other’s company, again – and in his. And we want to invite the participants to join us and share in the greatest gift that you can have – a greater intimacy with the man and his work.

Martin’s lecture-recital is set to be a highlight of the Summer School. I asked him what it will  include and if students will have the opportunity to participate in some way.

MB:  ‘Shakespeare’s Music Hallwill comprise key musical moments from the plays and sonnets, strung together with a spoken narrative, with the audience and an onstage group of attendees providing the music of the spheres, the animals and birds and sea nymphs in Ariel’s songs, and the sounds of discord in Troilus and Cressida and Richard II. It will be a journey through these moments, framed by the discovery of harmony, by Pythagoras, and the Platonic universe pre-Galileo. I also might try to work in a breaking lute as well to illustrate the collapse of an old musical order and the beginning of a new one marked, in Twelfth Night, by Malvolio’s call for its destruction (‘I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you’). The programme is designed to enrich participants’ understanding of what music meant to a Renaissance person, and how that meaning spread into every aspect of life. Participants will be inspired by hearing familiar texts in the arresting ways that Shakespeare intended, and they’ll have the chance to join in and help create the music (this part is not compulsory!) They will discover that the ‘music of the Spheres’ was conveyed not only in music, but in verse, in action and in emotion, and they will experience how Shakespeare depicts the fading of this idea as the modern world encroaches, leaving behind a gap in our understanding of the world, that we still haven’t filled. This is a performance replete with lute, love and song!

In his Sonnets Seminar, Martin will suggest how to interpret and speak some of the most famous, and some of the lesser known sonnets in the canon. Participants will learn about the origins of the sonnets in medieval songs, and how Petrarch, Chaucer and Dante, paved the way for these extraordinary works. They will come away with a new understanding of the musical-poetical structure of the sonnets, of Shakespeare’s virtuosity, and of how to embody the poems in their own speaking, so that they can be experienced more deeply as they are read. They will also learn how to craft the physical techniques of performance – voice, rhythm, clarity and emotion – so as to realise their impact in their own, personal ways. When I asked Martin to elaborate on the way he plans to work on the Sonnets, he commented:

MB: I’d like to introduce participants to the two main themes of the sonnets: erotic love and the music of words. These are held together by Shakespeare’s virtuosity, which of course is contained in the originality of his approach and the way he bends the rules and makes his own. ‘What is he up to?’ we can ask.  So we’ll examine some well known, and perhaps lesser known sonnets, and I’m hoping that we can do all our learning and exploring via people being brave and having a go at performing them, by letting the words ‘inhabit’ their own speech. We’ll look at technique – use of voice, breath, tone, emphasis; I hope to help people to read the sonnets in more depth, and to speak them aloud even if they are alone, because this was usual at the time. It’s only recently that we’ve learnt to read silently. We’ll explore where it all began – with Love and the Troubadors (who were prolific in 12th & 13th Century Italy), which I’ll demonstrate by singing; we’ll look into Sidney and Petrarch (there’s clearly a special Italian link here), as Shakespeare’s precursors. So I hope to give a sense of the tradition that Shakespeare felt himself to be part of, and of his place in European prosody – this means touching on the Baiff school in Paris.

How do I hope to work? My picture is of a close and informal circle of enthusiasts in a good room working together to try and speak the sonnets with courage and knowledge. I want to impart some of the learning that I’ve been lucky enough to have been exposed to. We should also examine the ‘Platonic’ nature of Shakespeare’s love for the Young Man, and probably argue about its relation to present day sexual politics. I will use Sonnet  8,‘Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?’ to illustrate the nature of Renaissance thinking about music. I will use the lute to demonstrate, putting that into the context of musical ideas of the time, and will argue that Shakespeare was really wanting to show how words (and probably mainly his words) were a ‘new music’ that replaced the old medieval theories so beloved of academic authority.

It is plain from listening to Martin talk about his approaches to teaching Shakespeare and the music of Shakespeare’s day, that he has the true educator’s passion for sharing his own enthusiasm, knowledge and pleasure with others. He also believes in the usefulness of the Arts. He and his wife, Sue, founded the Corporate Theatre – a unique leadership education project, which brings programmes based on insights from the Performing Arts, Humanities and Psychology into large organisations. This ‘applied’ aspect to Martin’s work with Shakespeare is distinguished by his belief in the importance of philosophy. He also believes that Shakespeare can teach us all we need to know about rhetorical invention:

MB: In fact Shakespeare concentrated on rhetorical invention between about 1597 and 1602. But I think he found, in the end, that the upsurge of individuality and mutuality in love, and political ambition, made rhetoric less important, and I think this is what he lamented in the song at the end of  Twelfth Night – that the world was going to be a bleaker place with the loss of a group culture of musical values, and the ascent of a group culture of personal advancement and wealth and power. So nothing changes! But, in the end, we yearn for harmoniousness, which is why the Urbino project holds so much meaning – and promise. People who come will join a group of performer-teachers who have worked together for many years, and who love nothing better than to be with, perform, talk about, teach, and learn about, Shakespeare.



For more on ‘Shakespeare in Italy’ (on both the general topic and on the Summer School) read Sylvia Morris’s recent blog. There is also a nice piece on Urbino in the Telegraph online, where the  Summer School’s hotel, the Albergo San Domenico, is described as a ‘special treat’.

To receive further details of the Summer School programme, accommodation and prices, please visit the homepage of the  Shakespeare in Italy website or email Julian Curry and Mary Chater.


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.


‘Active Reading’: a workshop for the Oxford Brookes Symposium. James Stredder

Posted June 13th, 2012 by James Stredder and filed in Events, Pedagogy, Teaching approaches and techniques

On 28th June, Oxford Brookes University will be hosting a one-day Symposium, exploring ‘how creative teaching and learning fits with, or doesn’t fit with, formal learning structures at school and university’. BSA trustee Paul Prescott, of the RSC/University of Warwick ‘Teaching Shakespeare’ partnership, will be giving one of the two keynote lectures. The Symposium is free – and there are still places available! Please click on the link to Unlearning Shakespeare in our ‘Recent Posts’ for more details.

To help me prepare for the workshop I am giving at the Oxford Symposium, I met with a group of practising teachers, who were at the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon, for a week in early April, as part of their work for the MA in Shakespeare and Education. What would they have to say, from their current classroom experience, about the usefulness and efficiency of active approaches to teaching Shakespeare? The workshop I have planned for the Oxford Symposium is concerned with three issues that I took from the MA group’s comments on their own, widely differing,  working situations.

(i)   The first issue gave me the subject for the workshop – how to set about reading the text. This is not as obvious as it sounds: commentaries, study guides, the provision of notes, all appear to give ‘right answers’ that may be learned –  perhaps, even, without much recourse to the text itself. But isn’t the most secure learning, and the learning that has the most lasting educational value, built on students’ personal experience of reading the text for themselves?  In the words of Tom Barlow, in his first teaching post in the East End of London: ‘Ultimately, the challenge is that, to some degree or other, the text does still have to be read in class – and part of my job is to stop the kids from switching off when this happens.’ (About 70% of Tom’s students are black, of African origin. The remainder are almost entirely white, mostly of Irish origin. He says that they are generally responsive and motivated but come from families where reading is not highly prized; there are high aspirations amongst the students to go onto higher education).

We want our students to be able to read independently, experiencing that internal animation that accomplished readers enjoy in private reading, but we can probably all agree with Tom Barlow that ‘the text still does have to be read in class’. We shall test the idea that active  approaches to ‘reading in class’ can not only take the class through the text in an engaged way, removing, through dramatic involvement,  the option to ‘switch off’ – they can also help  students in their development as confident, independent readers. We’ll examine the claim that those who have experienced (personally and collectively, in the classroom, through drama) something of the life and force of the unmediated text itself, are well-positioned to recreate the experience for themselves again, in private reading.

As our time will be limited to one hour for the workshop and discussion on 28th June, the practical activities will deal only with ‘basic reading techniques’- the first level of encounter with the printed words, rather than with more demanding exercises to do with experiment and interpretation. I’ll report on the workshop exercises, in my next blog.  

(ii)  The second important issue that emerged from the MA group’s comments is the matter of ‘English or Drama?’ for, in spite of extensive areas of overlap and common ground in the profiles and practice of individual teachers, the two subjects have somewhat different aims, methodologies and assessment concerns, not to speak of teaching spaces and student expectations. Richard Smith, who teaches Drama at Friends’ School, Saffron Walden, a Quaker school for 11-18 year-olds, comments: ‘The English Department’s approach is very different to mine and very static, I feel…Creative Methods are essential and the only way to work for me. Interestingly students deem the work they do with Shakespeare in Drama, different to the work they do in English at my school.’ English teachers frequently speak of their enthusiasm for ‘creative’ or ‘active’ methods, but also of the difficulties of developing their own practice. Tom Barlow comments on this: ‘Since an Inset Day six years ago with the RSC I have applied creative methods to my teaching of literature, and Shakespeare in particular, but despite acquiring the RSC’s Shakespeare Toolkit, I have definitely felt the need for more training. I wish, for example, that as a PGCE student I had been given some drama training. A one-day inset is not enough – these methods (at least in my practice) need to be more deeply entrenched and reinforced over time’.  How do we, as teachers, cope with curricular divisions and the inevitable insecurities associated with the feeling, or the demand, that we should change our pedagogy?  And to what extent, putting teacher mediation to one side, can a student’s primary experience of the text, whether in the English classroom or the Drama studio, be a personal possession, alive and coherent in their imagination?

(iii)  The third issue for the workshop concerns the appropriateness and efficiency of active methods. ‘Efficiency’ will be a central reference point for our discussions, for  creative pedagogy must be able to  demonstrate its efficiency as preparation for the assessment tasks faced by our students, as well as for the long-term development of their skills and abilities. Our students must ‘think while they dance’ – the reference is to Kate Mcluskie’s essay in Skip Shand’s collection of essays, Teaching Shakespeare (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009). And the criterion of ‘appropriateness’ means thinking carefully about suitability and exercising judgement, rather than wheeling out a game or activity, just because it is lively. For  Susie Crozier, currently working in a Medium Secure Unit for Pyschiatric Young Offenders, all of whom are on the Autism Spectrum, with some being severely Aspergers, as well as having a diagnosed psychiatric condition, students ‘don’t all react to lessons in the same way: some love Drama and getting up in the classroom, others prefer to sit and write, hence my comment about restrictions…My GCSE group are aware they’ll be using Drama to explore Romeo and Juliet. Methods I favour tend to be thought-tracking or thought talk (which for my pupils is a way into teaching empathy), still image, chair thermometer. I won’t be doing anything with sound, because I do teach some schizophrenic pupils…’

Two of the Shakespeare Institute MA group work predominantly with students for whom English is a foreign language. Some of their oral assessment involves the speaking of commentaries on Shakespearian passages. Active methods of approaching this work, involving the internalisation of the text through dramatization in role, should certainly be able to prove their worth and efficiency. Piers Smettem teaches at MEF International School, Istanbul, Turkey. For the International Baccalaureate Diploma, Piers says, students have to produce oral commentaries on a 40 line passage, which may be from a Shakespeare play. Active methods that focus on language can allow students to appreciate how language operates within a strictly defined context (the forty line passage), and how it relates to the text as a whole (in terms of character, plot and theme, for example). And   Melissa Kwok, who prepares 13 to 18 year-olds  for the International Baccalaureate, at the School of the Arts Singapore (SOTA), reports that her last term’s Year 4 students, in their pre-IB work, ‘ were assessed, via an individual oral presentation on a given 50 – 60 line passage from Macbeth. They were expected to do a detailed language and thematic analysis of the piece. This was to prepare them for their oral assessments in the IB years. Othello, the IB text, will be assessed in an Individual Oral Commentary. The students will be given an unknown passage, a short time to prepare an oral commentary, and will then be asked to deliver their commentary on the spot. 

*   *   *

 In the workshop at Oxford Brookes, participants will be encouraged to report on their own teaching. Here are a few more reflections from three of the Shakespeare Institute MA group – first those of Melissa Kwok:  ‘I often wonder what can be counted as a creative activity. I see it as involving lots of activity and movement. At times, I do really think that I’m quite a boring teacher. I go into class, whip out a passage from the text, explain away at vocabulary, and get the students to identify devices and theme. But, when I can, I do get the students to play with the lines. I remind them that it’s not about sounding “Shakespearean”, but to just have the experience of saying the lines out loud of themselves. I often get my students into groups to dramatise the lines. At other times, I ask them to be directors and to direct classmates who are playing characters. I must say that now as I write this – it really doesn’t sound all that creative. On the other hand, I know that I have very open discussions about the text. I suppose that in that way, I’m allowing my students to create and discover ideas.  AND I’m really excited about what I learnt and refreshed at the course up in Stratford. It’s really gotten me excited about teaching Shakespeare with the open-space method that the RSC uses. I like the idea of approaching the text as a playscript and experience. I wish I now had a Shakespearean class to teach! However, I’ve been doing Strindberg’s Miss Julie with my Year 5s now, and just today, I got them to walk the lines, changing directions as they came to punctuation marks. We also played the drama game when one student had to struggle against two who were holding them back at the shoulders whilst saying specific lines. I must say that the kids had a blast, and they did really discover Jean’s frustration and Miss Julie’s sense of entrapment!’ 

Tom Barlow writes: ‘These (active) methods are sporadic and my aim is to create more of a culture in my classrooms that uses active approaches… I am a big believer in the efficacy of dramatic/active methods but do not feel that I can take children to the drama studio every week. Physical space is a problem – the moving of chairs/tables in a small classroom creates its own logistical problems. I think, however, that active approaches can be incorporated and the pay-off for some chaos in re-arranging chairs/tables is worth it (as long as I have the energy). I’m very interested in developing more bite-sized approaches to active methods, which can be incorporated into lessons more organically without the need always to clear a huge space.  As someone who was ultimately swayed from studying English literature at university due to uninspiring teaching methods, I am a big advocate of active/dramatic methods. When I use these, I see the impact almost immediately quite simply because the children seem to be more engaged. They are seeing that Shakespeare is much more than a dull text to be read. They become motivated and excited about his plays.’

And Piers Smetton writes:  The creative methods that I have used are dependent on age and what is required in terms of assessment. With classes from 11 – 14 I have been able to use some drama-based exercises. When doing The Taming of the Shrew with an advanced International Baccalaureate literature group, various drama-based activities were used, such as different interpretations of Kate’s final speech. We have also used some active methods to an extent in Much Ado About Nothing for an IGCSE class (Cambridge University’s International General Certificate of Secondary). There was much, however, that was not very creatively set up, as I have relatively little experience in acting or using drama in the classroom. In middle school classes, a variety of active or creative methods are used, including drama activities that focus on character and language – I’ve used the Cambridge School Shakespeare series for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet. I have added other creative tasks, particularly based around empathic and creative writing.


Worlds Together Conference call for abstracts

Posted March 22nd, 2012 by Sylvia Morris and filed in Events

The Worlds Together Conference is being held from 6-8 September at Tate Modern. Please note that the deadline for submitting abstracts is 31 March.


Worlds Together: an international conference exploring the value of Shakespeare and the arts in young people’s lives.

September 6 – 8, 2012, at Tate Modern on London’s Southbank

Worlds Together is a collaborative conference between Tate Modern, the British Museum, the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). It draws together different disciplines in order to ask what is at stake for children’s cultural lives today. The conference will engage a range of professionals to explore what pioneers in arts education set out to achieve, what current practice has developed, and what change will most benefit the cultural lives of young people tomorrow. It brings the worlds of arts education together across time, place and practice.

Worlds Together is part of the Unilever Series: turbinegeneration, an international, online educational partnership produced by Tate, and the World Shakespeare Festival[1], a celebration of Shakespeare as the world’s playwright, produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company for the London 2012 festival. The conference is hosted in the Tate Modern’s new Oil Tanks (opening in 2012) and Clore Learning Centre.

The three-day event provides a space for educators, artists and cultural professionals from all over the world to debate important issues, explore new practices and exchange ideas. Delegate options will be organised into two related programmes. One strand specifically explores the world-wide influence of Shakespeare in education; the other a broader view of the contemporary arts education landscape.

Tate Gallery and the RSC invite the submission of abstracts for twenty minute presentations as part of either strand of programming.

In relation to the Shakespeare strand, we are interested in case studies of effective ways of working with Shakespeare and young people, particularly in international and diverse cultural contexts. These should respond to one the following questions:

◦         What place should Shakespeare have in a contemporary curriculum?

◦         What relevance does Shakespeare have in the lives of young people today?

◦         How can we use different art forms and new technologies to illuminate and explore young people’s responses to Shakespeare?

In relation to the broader contemporary arts education strand, we invite proposals that address the following four questions and which focus on emergent practice and provocations.  We are interested in the presentation of new ideas and theoretical perspectives that invite new conversations:

◦         What place should the arts have in a contemporary curriculum?

◦         How can we make the most of the opportunities offered by new and emerging technologies?

◦         What roles do artists play in learning settings?

◦         In what ways are social and participatory practices important for children and young people?


250 word abstracts should be submitted by 31st March 2012. If an abstract is accepted for the conference, a full draft paper may be requested for submission by 30th June 2012, if appropriate. Abstracts should be in Word, WordPerfect, or RTF formats with the following information and in this order: a) author(s), b) affiliation, c) email address, d) title of abstract, e) body of abstract, f) up to 10 keywords. E-mails should be entitled: Worlds Together Abstract Submission and addressed to tracy.irish@rsc.org.uk for Shakespeare in education and  rachel.harding@tate.org.uk for broader contemporary arts education.

A limited number of bursaries to attend the conference are available for contributors from outside the UK. Concessions on the ticket price may be available for UK contributors. Further details of bursaries and concessions will follow the submission of a successful abstract. The standard conference fee is £395, which includes: lunch and refreshments; free entry to the British Museum exhibition, Shakespeare: Staging the World; plus tickets to exhibitions and events at Tate where available.

Confirmed contributors include: Shirley Brice Heath, James Shapiro, Cicely Berry, Jonothan Neelands, Carla Rinaldi, Estelle Morris, Steve Seidel, Michael Morpurgo.

Full details of the Shakespeare programme will be available from 29th February 2012 at:



[1] The World Shakespeare Festival is a celebration of Shakespeare as the world’s playwright, produced by the RSC, in an unprecedented collaboration with leading UK and international arts organisations, and with Globe to Globe, a major international programme produced by Shakespeare’s Globe. It runs from 23 April to 9 September 2012.



Unlearning Shakespeare symposium

Posted March 22nd, 2012 by Sylvia Morris and filed in Events

A symposium on the theme of Unlearning Shakespeare, is to take place at Oxford Brookes University on 28 June. Please see below for full information.  

Harcourt Hill Campus, Oxford Brookes University

Thursday 28 June 2012


Symposium Description and Call for Papers & Attendees

An intensive one-day symposium to explore how creative teaching and learning fits with (or doesn’t fit with) formal learning structures at school and university. The focus of the symposium is on the relationship between institutional structures of thought and practice in learning and the positive turbulence or system stresses caused by injection of or experimentation with innovative approaches. Participants will include academics and teachers as well as anyone with an interest in how creativity functions in respect to institutional learning. The conveners are based at Oxford Brookes University and the University of Sydney and so the symposium will include UK and Australian dimensions.


‘Institutional structures of thought and practice’ include such things as: curriculum, syllabus and rationale; discipline or degree scope, skills and content; learning stages, areas, milestones and pathways; practices and physical spaces of teaching and learning; forms and genres of student demonstration of learning; examination and assessment regimes, bands, standards and guidelines of achievement; inherited, tacit, expected and conventional habits of thought and practice; and desired, projected and created graduate attributes.


‘Innovative approaches’ indicates novel ways of teaching and learning within or against institutional structures that may cause a reappraisal, critique or transformation of those structures.


Unlearning Shakespeare explores, via a focus on Shakespeare pedagogy at school and university, what teaching and learning actually are, where practicality meets imagined ideals, and what might be changed or best left alone. It considers the nexus between system and asystem, between formula and creativity, between educator and student, and between Shakespeare and the study of Shakespeare. The symposium welcomes theoretical and policy papers as well as reflections on practical experience. 


The format will be a dual stream of short papers clustered by topic area and with discussion times following. We also invite proposals for workshop sessions.


Registration and Submission of Abstracts

Registration is by emailing the following information to the conveners by 30 March 2012:

  • Your name, affiliation and contact details including email address,
  • Your intention to attend without presenting a paper, OR,
  • Your intention to attend and present a 15-minute paper (please supply a paper title and abstract of between 50-100 words).

The symposium is free (no charge). Delegates will be able to make use of the on-campus refectory during breaks and lunch.  Details of accommodation options available on request.


Contact the Conveners

Jane Coles, School of Education, Oxford Brookes University. j.coles@brookes.ac.uk

Liam Semler, Department English, University of Sydney. liam.semler@sydney.edu.au