Finding Entry Points into Shakespeare

This article was commissioned by the Danish National Paper for Drama Teachers. 

What springs to mind when you think of Shakespeare? 

Maybe you imagine complicated and archaic plays; remembering school days and English classes where you were forced to decode the language, wondering all the while, “How is this relevant?” Or perhaps you think of something prestigious and academic; picturing upper-class theatre-goers and dusty, old university lecturers pontificating on some aspect of the text that you need a PhD in English to even understand. 

But it doesn’t have to be like this. From my experience, when Shakespeare is made accessible – when people, no matter their ability or background, are invited to discover their own connections to the stories and themes – it can be confidence-building and provide a rich starting point for further creative expression and ideas. Moreover, the way in which Shakespeare is taught to school students can impact their future relationship to theatre and classical texts.

I am a British theatre maker and educator living in Berlin. One of the strings to my bow is facilitating Shakespeare workshops, to provide students with an entry point into Shakespeare, but also for my own research into leading accessible performance processes. For the last year, I have been leading these workshops for school groups at English Theatre Berlin | International Performing Arts Center, alongside my colleague Priscilla Bergey. In these sessions, we aim to support participants to find entry points into Shakespeare by exploring his works on their feet, giving students the tools to begin performing and interpreting Shakespeare themselves. So, how exactly do we do this? Here, I will take a closer look at three aspects of my Shakespeare workshops: starting small, physicality and playfulness. 

In my sessions, I always start small. Often, I begin with introductions where I ask each student in the circle to say their name and do a movement, as if they were entering an Elizabethan banquet (the name/movement of the individual is then repeated by the whole group). Whilst this might seem like a simple ice-breaker, the silliness of the task and the laughter that often ensues releases the students’ nerves and evaporates their expectations of a daunting workshop. At the same time, participants are asked to take a small risk when put themselves in front of the ‘audience’ of their peers right at the start of the session. After overcoming this first hurdle, they warm-up to being seen and heard and to the fact that performing Shakespeare doesn’t have to be serious. 

Priscilla and I both work very physically in our workshops, using energetic games, tableaux and aspects of mime. In so doing, we get participants out of their heads and into their bodies, to discover the play as alive, malleable and moving; as opposed to fixed on the page. We often add text in the second half of the session. Since we work mostly with non-native English speakers, Shakespeare’s language is all the more intimidating for the participants. By already having gained confidence in their physical interpretations of aspects of the play, any text that students include already has a sense of purpose. Working this way around mirrors the way in which we best learn language: by applying it directly in context. 

When people are feeling playful they are less scared of taking risks and less anxious of getting something wrong. Because Shakespeare’s works are often put on a pedestal, participants’ fear of making a mistake increases and therefore the necessity for playfulness is even more pressing. During a Shakespeare’s sonnets workshop that I led for 18-20 year old students from Silkeborg Gymnasium, Denmark, we discovered that the openness of Shakespeare’s poetic texts – free from defined characters, elaborate plot, stage directions and clear scenes – provided an even more playful starting point from which the students created performances. Looser, yet no less dramatic, the students were asked to devise performances in groups using a sonnet they selected. Less confined by expectations, they were freer to interpret the text for themselves. At the end, I was amazed by the maturity of the performances they created. 

Teaching theatre we always have to remember that it isn’t easy to start, especially when you are a teenager. Plus, tackling big and prestigious classical playwrights can add yet another layer of anxiety. Nevertheless, I believe that this is what makes taking on Shakespeare all the more rewarding for young people. If they are given the right support to find interesting entry points into his works, teenagers can find too the confidence to step up to the challenge and put their own unique spin on Shakespeare. 

Who knows what the ripple effects of this might be for the participants? I suspect that though they be but little, they are fierce*. 

*”Though she be but little, she is fierce”, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act III, Sc II. 

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