All the world’s a stage: celebrating the work of Shakespeare with our students

Issue: Volume 95, Number 13

Posted: 25 July 2016
Reference #: 1H9d36

Shakespearean plays have secured a place in our cultural life, and also remain popular in the English, drama and technology programmes offered by secondary schools. 2016 marks 400 years since Shakespeare’s death, and Education Gazette asks what lies behind the enduring appeal of the Bard for students in 21st century New Zealand.

Aotearoa in 2016 is a world away from Elizabethan England, and yet Macbeth and Hamlet are still well-recognised names, and most people are familiar with the classic tragedy of Romeo and Juliet’s love affair.

From love stories to family dramas, political thrillers to tales of the supernatural, what is it about these works that remains fresh and engaging to English students today?

Big themes, big characters

The human behaviour described in Shakespeare’s plays is both complex and familiar. Through the plays, we follow the characters as they experience gut-wrenching grief, love at first sight, unbearable jealousy and heartbreak.

The plays provide a dense and vibrant source of language for students as they make meaning of the texts and through the language, explore the richness of Shakespeare’s themes, contexts and characters.

The overarching themes of love, treachery, honour and human relationships resonate just as strongly today as they did in the early 17th century.

Outside the classroom there are films, dance productions, television shows, live theatre performances and even video games based on Shakespearean characters and storylines. The plays are widely reflected in popular culture.

Importantly, Shakespeare’s plays were written to be performed.

New Zealand students have been treading the boards with the Shakespeare Globe Centre 

New Zealand (SGCNZ) since 1992, in a competition where slices of plays are performed and produced by groups of secondary school students.

Out of the classroom and onto the stage

SGCNZ describes itself as ‘a life skills enhancing organisation using Shakespeare as a tool’.

The organisation works with teachers and students, actors, directors and the corporate sector to keep Shakespeare alive and kicking in Aotearoa.

The SGCNZ University of Otago Sheilah Winn Shakespeare Festival involves more than half of the secondary schools in the country. The annual event begins with regional festivals that see students engage with and perform five-minute and 15-minute excerpts from plays.

Schools from each region are then selected to go on to participate in the national festival, held in Wellington each winter.

The festival not only provides an opportunity for students to act and direct the plays, but also to serve as stage crew members, compose music, create costumes and design posters and DVD covers to accompany their performances.

SGCNZ also fosters close ties with Shakespeare’s home stage in England.

A group of 48 students are chosen from the regional and national festivals for the next stage, a week of intensive workshops, rehearsals and performances.

24 of these students then form the SGCNZ Young Shakespeare Company, which performs at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London.

SGCNZ founder and director Dawn Sanders says the high participation rates of the festival reflect the ongoing popularity of Shakespeare’s works among young people in New Zealand.

“When I ask students why they’re getting involved with the festival, they tell me the plays are relevant,” she says.

“Around 70% of the performances are student-directed productions. It’s the students who want to do it – they’re not having their arms twisted by teachers. It’s their choice, and they’re extremely interested in it."

“They see the relevance of the stories and scenes they study – whether it’s sibling rivalry, such as in King Lear, or parental intrusion on their decision making, like in Romeo and Juliet – it’s the strong elements of interpersonal relationships that hold our interest.”

Dawn says that as well as the uplifting benefits of being involved in a team and achieving something special, being part of the festival can offer students a way of coping with difficult situations in their everyday life.

“I think young people are acutely aware of how they seem to other people. Social media can be part of this – teenagers hide behind it, but can be confronted with it, in various situations. I think that acting is a safe way to confront issues – playing a character helps them in a way to analyse and cope with issues as they arise.”

At the festival, the productions vary widely and showcase a range of emotions and scenarios, live music and dance, innovative costume design and several different languages.

“The performances can involve anything from two to 24 students, and the judges are looking for clear delivery, and good interaction and reaction – we don’t allow monologues for this reason,” says Dawn.

The festival also offers students special workshops and lectures.

This year, the event was held at the Michael Fowler Centre, the St James Theatre and Parliament over Queen’s Birthday Weekend and the scene performances were open to the general public. 

Building bridges and making mirrors: bringing Shakespeare to Aotearoa New Zealand and the Pacific

Te Wharekura o Mauao in Tauranga was in 2015 the first Māori immersion school to make it to the SGCNZ national finals, after winning the South Auckland competition.

The 15-minute slice of Macbeth drew on the hunt for mana, and the spiritual ill health that guilt and betrayal can cause.

It incorporated cultural elements such as taiaha and kapa haka taught by kaiako mahi a rēhia Wiremu Mako.

At the national competition, the group won ‘Best Performance of a Tragedy’, as well as ‘Best Costume’ 2015 and in the 2014 regional competition.  

“It was about expanding their world view beyond kapa haka, and incorporating a Māori world view into a mainstream context,” says Wiremu.

“The goal with this performance was to explore the unique language and universal themes that Shakespeare brings, and ‘own it’ or translate it into a Māori context,” says the group’s kaiako reo Pākehā Geri Allen."

“This makes our tauira feel a strong relationship with Rūrūtao (Shakespeare), the rangatira of the English language.”

She says the students had help from Waihoroi Shortland to translate the Elizabethan language and grammar into Te Reo Rangatira, or high-level te reo Māori.

“Together with his help, the students studied the play’s grammar and the ‘āhua’ or features of language we use today in metaphor, imagery, puns and other wordplay."

“This was beneficial for student confidence and ability in both reo and also culminated in us being able to take te reo Māori onto a national stage at the beautiful St James Theatre in Wellington. It was a powerful moment for us as a wharekura,” says Geri.

Student Kaydin Budd played a central role in the scene, and was also selected as one of the 24 performers to represent the Young Shakespeare Company in London in July last year.

“This is really important to me, because it’s a pathway to celebrate our language, and being Māori within this Pākehā world,” he said on Māori Television.

Taking a Shakespeare play and re-situating it so it has relevance to a young brown audience is at the heart of the Black Friars’ work.

The South Auckland-based theatre troupe formed in 2006 from a desire to challenge dominant stereotypes, on and off the stage.

Director Michelle Johansson says the Black Friars are determined to ‘build bridges and make mirrors’, and their vision is to tell stories that matter, and to make existing stories relevant, to Polynesian people in Aotearoa.

“I think that as teachers it is important for us to make mirrors so that our students can see themselves and their worlds reflected in the classroom, but it is equally important for us to build bridges, and to give our students access to those ‘window’ texts that expand their worlds.”

Shakespeare and Shakespeare-esque texts are still standard classroom material in most schools and Michelle believes these remain timeless and universal.

“They are great stories, still relevant, and told in beautiful ways. The fact that we can and do still teach, live and breathe these stories is testament to the enduring and poignant nature of the work."

“I think that we continue to teach Shakespeare for the stories, but also for the worlds that his works continue to represent. The grand canon of English literature that is at once removed from us, but also immediately familiar.”

In a recent article for English in Aotearoa, Michelle writes that the Black Friars work to ‘poly-nize Shakespeare as a deliberate act of decolonisation’.

“By taking what might be perceived as a ‘white’ text, and ‘poly’-nizing it, we appropriate these stories for our own brown purposes. We use Shakespeare to defy expectations, because they’re extremely good stories, and because we can,” she says.

“We formed partly because of the thought of all these Polynesian students sitting there in their classrooms, reading words that are completely unintelligible and irrelevant to them. We wanted to bring Shakespeare off the page and onto a Polynesian stage, complete with Polynesian music and dance – all components of great storytelling.”

In 2014, the Black Friars staged a production of the Merchant of Venice, set in the multicultural community of the Mangere markets.

“When we came to telling the Merchant story, we wanted to fuse aspects of this with our performance. We got musical. We set the play in the Mangere markets. We removed Shylock’s Jewish-ness and replaced it to make comment against the loan sharks that constantly prey on Pasifika people in their most vulnerable times – particularly funerals,” she says.

Michelle’s sister Viola Johansson, also a Black Friar, translated Romeo and Juliet into Tongan for year 11 students at the predominantly-Pasifika Wesley College. The scene won the South Auckland SGCNZ regional competition this year, and was performed at the national festival in Wellington.

The Black Friars are now working on a production of Macbeth that is set in Samoa and features three full choirs of Polynesian witches.

A flow-on effect

For students on the West Coast of the South Island, performing Shakespeare has opened up a new world of artistic possibilities.

A scene where Hamlet attempts to prove his uncle guilty of murder by staging a play that mirrors the crime was performed at the SGCNZ festival by students from Buller High School.

The ten-strong troupe travelled from Westport to perform at Wellington’s Michael Fowler Centre, meet like-minded students, and get a taste of city life.

Their teacher Ellen Curnow believes the cost of taking a group of students to the capital was worth every cent.

“It is very expensive to take this number of students across the Strait and to organise five days of food and accommodation,” she says.

“But as an isolated school, it’s really important for our students to have rich cultural experiences like these.”

In addition to the educational opportunities inherent in Wellington’s professional arts offerings, she believes there is a flow-on effect to the school and wider community of such a trip – “passion and enthusiasm are contagious!”

Ellen’s students participated in the festival’s workshops and presentations and many want to explore more of Shakespeare’s works and are investigating future careers in the performance industry.

One Buller High School student was noticed for his talent in mime.

“At the awards ceremony, one of our team was given a special mime award that hadn’t been awarded before. He really did come alive on that big stage – he upped his game. They all did!”

 She says Shakespeare is important because it has a rich history and speaks to so many people.

“It’s a global culture – a way to connect with a whole lot of different people around the world.”

In English class, reading Shakespeare text becomes about decoding dense language.

“From a technical level, it’s hard work decoding the text, so it hones skills in reading and making sense of language,” says Ellen.

“Regardless of whether the student will go on to study science or English at university – they are learning how to interpret difficult language. So I hope it prepares them for understanding academic text and learning new jargon.”

After reading and decoding the text, the students progress to critical analysis.

“They then look at how different critics have analysed the play and talked about the universal messages in it,” says Ellen.

But the essence of the work is in the performance, and this was reflected at the SGCNZ festival.

“There’s a feeling that it’s old and dusty, and it belongs only in English classrooms – but to actually perform the plays, instead of just reading them, is really exciting. They were written to be seen and heard and performed."

“For some of our students, it was the first time they had seen professional theatre, and the first time they had been on a big stage – they worked really hard for it and did a fabulous job.”

The element of surprise at Queen's High School

Terry MacTavish has had a long association with the joy of Shakespeare – and she is spreading that joy in her work teaching drama at Queen’s High School in Dunedin.

This year, she brought a group of students to Wellington to perform an electrifying scene from Macbeth, for which they won the award for the ‘Most Imaginative and Innovative Production’, ‘Best Voice Projection: Whole Cast’, and ‘Outstanding Costume/Design’.

One student, Juliette Bernard, was awarded direct entry to the SGCNZ ‘Boot Camp’.

“From my students’ point of view it was a very rewarding weekend in Wellington,” she says.

“The award I was most excited about was the award for the most imaginative and innovative production. And considering it was the first scene of Macbeth, which everyone knows very well, I thought it was particularly good that we could surprise the audience."

“I think it was the surprise factor of our performance that won us that award. It was about the nature of evil, and how what appears to be good can have a very dark side underneath.”

In this vein, and to surprise their audience, Terry’s students gave their characters a quirky twist.

The witches were “three sweet little old ladies, wearing pink and lavender and cream, with handbags and gloves and lovely flowery church hats”, who opened the performance by spreading a tablecloth and sitting down for a picnic with pink cupcakes.

“The audience at this point is thinking ‘what is going on and who are these people?’"

“My students really embraced the deeper themes of Macbeth – they explore the ideas of light and dark, good and evil, fair and foul."

“These big themes are really part of why my students enjoy studying Shakespeare – it’s something they can really get their teeth into.”

Terry, herself an actor who has played both Lady Macbeth and First Witch, and admits her favourite tragedy is Macbeth, is a committed drama teacher and says the teaching of the works of Shakespeare at Queen’s High School focuses on form.

“It’s about learning how the plays would have been performed and received in the theatre of the period,” she says.

“The students not only learn how to act but also must be able in their external examinations to write about how it would have been for an actor in Shakespeare’s time. It’s about what the intention was, what the actors would have been striving for."

“My students learn by doing. We’re also doing Greek and Restoration theatre, and as with Shakespeare there is a great variety of features and requirements.”

Terry explains that at Queen’s High School, the English and drama teachers work together to give students a wide understanding of the texts.

“The girls don’t come into my drama class with pen and paper – they come ready to perform the work,” she says.

“This complements what is being taught in the English department. We often choose the same play – and the analysis done in English helps the performing we do in drama – and vice versa.”

Terry also notes that producing a play brings a group of students together in a manner that is especially meaningful.

Some members of the group have health conditions, like Tourette Syndrome, but they have actually made potential problems part of their performance.

“Our students are very supportive of each other, and this was evident in the way they worked together to create their production."

“I was really proud of the care that my girls gave each other in putting together their scene,” she says.

And she remains confident that studying Shakespeare brings joy and enriches the curriculum.

“Learning Shakespeare is marvellous and exciting – you really can’t go wrong.” 

BY Melissa Wastney
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 6:40 pm, 25 July 2016

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