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Interview with Patrick Spottiswoode | Shakespeare in London

By April 9, 2015 No Comments

I’ll hold my hands up and confess now. I may – may, mark you – have inadvertently set back the Globe Theatre’s festival of events for 2016. Not out of malice or spite, but because Patrick Spottiswoode, the Globe’s director of education, is such an interesting interviewee that I kept him on the phone for far longer than promised, causing him to miss the start of a meeting with King’s College London on the proposed programme.

Hopefully I caused no lasting damage.

patrick spottiswoodePatrick is a man in demand. His job encompasses a wide array of programmes, projects, and partnerships; all designed to establish the Globe as the preeminent centre for learning Shakespeare anywhere in the world. More than that, his job involves extending the reach of the Globe beyond its home on the South Bank of the Thames to all corners of the UK and further afield, through outreach programmes and cutting edge digital resources.

It’s a far cry from how things started out when he joined the Globe in 1984. Back then, there were only two full-time staff in the whole organisation. Today, Patrick heads a team of 28 full-time and  70 freelancers who work with over 100,000 people every year.

“We have our schools-based work, then higher education and research work with universities, then a third strand focused on family learning or more informal learning; and all three are supported by digital,” he says. The aim is to make the Globe a one-stop shop for everybody’s educational needs – whether they be a student, PhD scholar, or a teacher looking for new materials to test on their pupils.

On the home front in London, Patrick oversees an annual programme of school workshops that sees 90,000 young people come to the theatre every year to learn about Shakespeare in performance. Many of these are students based in the capital, but Patrick reveals that over 25,000 come from Germany, and thousands more from around the world.

“We do a lot of work in the US, and in German schools, and even Hong Kong and the Middle East. We might be better known in Düsseldorf than Doncaster!” he jokes.

I ask whether this is something the Globe should be more concerned about. After all, Shakespeare is England’s greatest heritage, and it would be remiss of the theatre built in his memory if it neglected the education of those who study in the Bard’s homeland.

Patrick is quick to correct me. “When Sam [Wannamaker, co-founder of the Globe] was alive, we would have meetings where he asked: what will we do for the child in Stornoway? [a city on one of the most remote islands in the UK]. It was always important to him that we think of those students who would love to come to the Globe but can’t afford it. A major focus for us at the moment is to grow our pool of Globe Education Practitioners (GEPs) who will go on the road and teach Shakespeare in schools. We’re also looking at partnerships to spread our practices, so we’re developing links with the National Union of Teachers, as well as clusters of schools and academies to support the small scale tours the Globe sends out. At the moment that’s Much Ado About Nothing and Romeo and Juliet.”

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Recently the Globe appointed a national outreach officer to coordinate its activities across the UK to find those under-served communities that may be missing out. “We have this pool of GEPs, we have projects and programmes we can share, we do joint conferences, but we’re looking to become much more proactive,” says Patrick.

Perhaps the fascination the Globe holds for overseas students and practitioners has something to do with the different way in which Shakespeare is taught overseas compared to the UK. As Ben Crystal points out, it seems that some of the most exciting Shakespeare is being performed in other countries while the UK seems to be slipping behind. Are different educational practices behind this?

Patrick says it isn’t as black-and-white as this. It’s the blend of desk-based and performance-based learning that’s important, he believes, and while the UK and the States have got it right, not every country has found the right balance.

“I think there is a really great tradition in British schools of teaching Shakespeare in a practical and performance perspective. There isn’t such a tradition in Germany where it’s still very much ‘chalk and talk’. That’s why I think we’re incredibly popular with German students and teachers – because we get them up on their feet.”

However, Patrick knows the Globe cannot rest on its laurels. Constant innovation is needed for Shakespeare to remain relevant to children in a rapidly changing society. Part of the challenge is simply keeping it a hot topic in the classroom.

“The Tudors are no longer a compulsory subject at Key Stage 2 level [in UK schools] so we worried that children may not have the same access to Shakespeare at primary school. So we developed the ‘Storytellers’ programme using Shakespeare to develop literacy for schools to sneak Shakespeare in the backdoor.”

In addition to such programmes, the Globe has been taking its ‘Shakespeare Untold’ concept across the country. In these bite-sized performances, a classic Shakespeare play is retold from the point of view of one of the minor characters in the play to offer a fresh perspective to students who might be turned off by a full-length production. One version sees Titus Andronicus retold from the point of view of a cook. I don’t know whether that would hook me on Shakespeare, but it’d be sure to spoil my appetite for the day!

Digital media is also a new resource Patrick is eager to tap. “We realised there was no site in the world catering solely for children, so we launched the Shakespeare Playground. This is for kids who want to access Shakespeare; not in a school-based environment but in their own time.” It’s now attracting thousands of views a month.

box_149_20110918093941_00048A.jpgAlongside this rolling programme of events and innovations, Patrick and his team are preparing for what promises to be one of the greatest celebrations of Shakespeare to date – the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death. Way back in 1916, an enthusiastic professor at King’s College London worked in partnership with colleagues from around the world (in the midst of a World War, no less) to create a series of celebrations to mark the tercentennial. One hundred years later, his successors at King’s are once again leading the way, this time with the Globe in tow.

“The meeting this afternoon [the one I made Patrick late for] is to hear from colleagues across London about what they are planning – it’s going to be very exciting. We are going to focus for our public events strategy on the year 1616, so not just on Shakespeare but on that year in culture as a whole. A lot happened in 1616: Ben Jonson published his First Folio [establishing the model by which Shakespeare’s plays first became circulated after his death] King James published his complete works, and [playwrights] Beaumont and Cervantes died in that year. So we are going to look at them instead of being completely Shakespeare focused in our public events.”

This is not to say the Globe is going to be stingy with its programme of Bard-based activities. In the pipeline is a staging of Midsummer’s Night Dream with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, a panoply of workshops at the British Library, an international teachers’ conference on the study of Shakespeare, and- to top it all- the World Shakespeare Congress, the most prestigious academic conference on the circuit.

It’s enough to make anyone’s head spin. But not Patrick. He’s been at this for over 30 years and is showing no signs of stopping. And for lovers of Shakespeare, and those who love learning about Shakespeare, that’s all to the good.

Louie Woodall

Author Louie Woodall

Louie Woodall is a financial journalist living in London and an avid Shakespeare fan, whose passion for the playwright can be traced back to a bravura performance as Bottom the Weaver in 'A Midsummer's Night Dream' when he was fourteen. Since then he has nurtured his Bardolatry by frequenting performances of Shakespeare's plays in London and Stratford-Upon-Avon and, more recently, by studying and writing about The Sonnets. Louie's other interests include British politics, which he writes about for the Young Fabians group (http://www.youngfabians.org.uk/#home), and food, which he both eats and writes about in copious amounts.

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