An aspect of the A Play For A Nation project which I have only just touched upon briefly and yet is a key part of the whole is that being undertaken by the Education Department at the RSC and which goes under the general title of RSC Dream Team 2016. As someone who has worked in education all my life I am finding this aspect of the project particularly fascinating.
It’s probably a fairly safe bet that, for most of us, our first introduction to Shakespeare was through A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’m pretty certain it was for me – possibly through one of those Illustrated Classic magazines that were so popular back in the early 60s. (For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, they were a sort of precursor to today’s graphic novels but rather more genteel/respectful in tone). I’m reasonably sure we did bits of the play at primary school and then fired with enthusiasm acted out scenes in the playground with like-minded friends (well, back in those days you had to make your own entertainment …. etc. etc.) It was also our set text in the first year of secondary school. Alongside this I have memories of a Beatles TV show in which they played the Pyramus and Thisbe interlude (video here) and an even vaguer recall of a TV production in which Benny Hill starred as Bottom. So it’s fair enough to say that the play loomed large at quite an early age.
With its emphasis on magic and the knockabout comedy of the Mechanicals, The Dream is a bit of a no brainer for getting the young mind hooked into Shakespeare’s work. Although some modern productions have emphasized the darker side of proceedings it is essentially and literally a fairy story with a magic at its centre; always a crowd pleaser (cf. Harry Potter). The story also reminds us that in dreams we are in a state of innocence and in a place where the creative imagination can hold sway. The RSC’s project, therefore gains extra resonance by appealing to our inner child; so it is highly appropriate that children are to figure in the final outcome.
As part of the main touring production of the play to 12 different regions, some 580 pupils from 28 schools will be taking on the role of Titania’s fairy train. The children will be working with the regional theatres, the professionals and those of us from the amateur world to create a production that truly encourages a sense of community and which will bring the play to life for a nationwide audience. Hopefully, it will also help to introduce Shakespeare’s works to a new generation of enthusiasts and will give the children the chance to work on the professional stage – a bit of a step up from the annual school offering.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Let’s face it, for many people their one and only foray onto a stage of any sort is that lumbering beast known as the school play. Whether this be taking on the role of second sheep in the school Nativity, getting into the chorus for the annual musical or playing the lead in one of the classics, it is something that many of us will have experienced as a moment that either fueled our future passion or convinced us that we should never inflict our “talents” on the rest of humanity ever again. The lucky (very lucky) 580 young people who will be taking part in this project will have something to look back on with pride and a sense of achievement. The project is, to all intents and purposes, a national event and a one-off of gigantic proportions.
The fairy train get to interact at some key moments with Bottom; another reason that I am particularly interested in how things develop. Fortunately I have had plenty of chances to work onstage with young people in stage performances – I once played in a production of Treasure Island where I was the only adult – so I’m quite used to directing some of my lines at a height slightly above waist level. I’ve also had plenty of chances to direct young people in some memorable productions. One of my most cherished directing memories is of a production of Lord of The Flies which benefitted from absolutely spot on casting, original student devised music and a completely committed onstage, backstage and front of house team. The cherry on the icing on the cake was being allowed to turn the school hall into a tropical island complete with a real sandy beach – I still can’t quite believe that I was allowed to do it and that the school caretaker continued to speak to me afterwards! So, I certainly hope that I can get directly involved with our local Dream Team youngsters when the participating schools are announced in January. And that we can work together towards making the scenes we appear in as good as we can possibly get them. Watch out for regular updates about this aspect of the production entitled “News from Fairy School” at www.dream2016.org.uk/education/education-blog/ .
Now, there’s something like 25,000 schools in the UK so those of you quick at Maths will realise that the 28 establishments taking part represent just 0.1% of the total (that’s what I mean by them being very lucky). But the RSC have come up with plans to get the other 99.9% involved too. Rather than laboriously writing it all up, just watch this short video which will explain how:
If all that were not enough the schools’ participation culminates in a special Dream Day (June 24 2016). This will also see the start of a week of workshops, drop in sessions and performances of The Dream by young people at the (aptly named) Dell, the RSC’s outside space in Stratford upon Avon.
So there we are then– plenty to keep everyone in schools occupied, even in that difficult Friday afternoon slot. Approximately 600 schools have already downloaded the excellent free materials (and I say “excellent” as both an interested participant and a disinterested educator) and I would urge you if you’re a teacher, a parent, a grandparent, a school governor, a local authority adviser, an education consultant or just a person that’s interested in spreading the Shakespeare word to get in contact with your nearest school and let them know how they can get involved. In the year of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death you too can play a part in extending his legacy. “Masters, spread yourselves!”