Shakespeare Schools Festival is the largest theatre festival for young people in the world. Granted, it takes place all over the UK rather than just London, but the capitol has a large number of theatres taking part. Schools pay to participate, but included in the fee is the opportunity for children and young people to perform a 30-minute edit of any Shakespeare play in a professional theatre. The “teacher-director” is also invited to a one-day workshop, and the cast have a half-day session with theatre practitioners. Parents love seeing their child perform in a professional theatre, and schools covering all ages and abilities are welcome to participate.
The 2015 festival season, which just finished, had 1,150 schools participating in its 15th year of operation. Over six weeks, an estimated 35,000 school children performed or helped backstage at one of the 138 participating theatres. The festival “challenges, supports and inspires young people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds by providing them and their teachers with everything they need to transform into a fully-fledged theatre company with the courage, confidence and capability to perform a Shakespearean play”.
The festival is inclusive of special schools, but also highly supportive of the teacher-directors (an odd term to employ because they are no less a director than one of an adult cast) who do not have a theatre or Shakespeare background. The online “Green Room” is a forum for participants to ask questions and share ideas, a welcome pack and manual are thorough and warmly written, and the workshop is very much pitched at a beginner’s level, which helps calm any fears for tackling a task that can seem hugely daunting if you’ve never done it before. The only issue is lack of more advanced support for experienced teachers, such as Drama teachers and those who have worked in theatre professionally. Other than logistical information, the creative support is too basic for the more theatrically literate.
In the cast workshop, the students are invited to share part of the play they have already rehearsed, but not completely polished. Shared with another school, the other students offer feedback and the professional actor or director will coach the students on their work. It’s also valuable for the students to see work by another school and meet other young people working toward the same performance goal.
On the performance day itself, the four schools that are performing that evening have a tech and dress in staggered time slots. There’s a lot of downtime for the students who are booked into the morning sessions and the day is consequently quite a long one but the performance is a rewarding climax. Following the performance, one of the SSF team gives the schools an “appraisal” that’s really just a lovely monologue extolling each performance’s strengths. The company’s experience means the day runs like a well-oiled machine.
Shakespeare Schools Festival is an excellent opportunity for young performers to explore Shakespeare in an unintimidating way. Teacher-directors are free to use the supplied scripts or reinterpret them to suit their students’ needs. Creativity is encouraged, as is fun and playfulness, which help alleviate any academic reverence towards the bard or preconceptions that his work is boring. It can be an opportunity for students to stretch themselves or a showcase for gifted and talented, or to supplement classroom learning. Despite shortcomings in catering to the teacher-directors’ abilities, it is certainly an excellent experience for young performers across the UK.