Tuesday 18 March 2014

Shakespeare Week // The Telegraph // March 2014

A version of this piece was published online in The Telegraph, March 19th 2014

This March, I’m an ambassador for Shakespeare Week (no sash, unfortunately). 

I've been acting, writing about, producing, teaching, and running workshops on Shakespeare for the last 15 years, and I’m often asked why should we teach our younglings his works? I can answer with my own experiences. 

I did terribly at Shakespeare in English Literature, and struggled to get essay marks higher than a C. But years of character parts in musicals had finally gotten me noticed by a director, who was starting up a repertory company, and I started acting Shakespeare at the beginning of my A-Levels. 

By the time I had left for university I had acted in two Shakespeare plays, and auditioned for the National Youth Theatre and the Manchester Youth Theatre (both unsuccessfully and then successfully) with monologues from the canon.
Acting Shakespeare - Ariel, in The Tempest - outside in a new stone amphitheatre with perfect acoustics, for the most part to an audience new to the play, and for many of my fellow am-dram actors the first time we’d got to roll those words round our mouths, softening with time like a gobstopper, in front of an audience. 

It was there I had my Road to Damascus moment, for the biblically-minded out there, or caught my first Shakespeare wave, for the surfily-minded out there. It was the first time it made sense.
Out there, covered in gold makeup, freezing my under-developed ginger pectorals off in the September North Welsh rain, Shakespeare made sense, and I fell hard and fast in love with acting his words.
From that moment on, I’ve never had too difficult a time understanding Shakespeare, acting it, teaching it, explaining it to others, or writing about it. I can take apart a speech in a dozen different ways, and I spend a lot of my time working out how to articulate how we are guided by Shakespeare towards the way he might have wanted it to be spoken, and then attempting to articulate all this in the printed word.
I still have little to no idea how to analyse a piece from a literary-critical point of view. I have a feeling I’d still get a C, despite the 15 years experience. It makes sense to me watching it in a theatre (even if the production’s bad) and it makes sense to me when I’m acting it, or helping others work out how to act it. I struggle to make it make sense on the page.
The key fits the lock, the engine growls, the car roars into life, when acted. It’s what the words were written for.
Shakespeare is the reason I don’t work a 9-5. He’s the reason I’m miserable sometimes, and he’s often the reason I laugh hard. He’s the reason I earn less money than I could, and he’s the reason my life is sometimes a shambles. But I get to work with the best English language playwright most days of my life, and I consider myself blessed for that.
Shakespeare teaches me something new about life every time I speak it, because I’m a day older than the last time I looked at it, and so the words resonate differently to me. A 13 year old girl can tell me more about what its like to be Juliet than I can ever teach her. And the sooner you discover that speaking Shakespeare is fun, the sooner you can pick up one of his scripts (something that has been worked on in a similar way by thousands of artists before you). 
Then, if you learn the words by mind, and find a way to speak them by heart in such a believable way that you activate that special part of your audiencesbrains and engage their suspension of disbelief, and maybe make them laugh or cry - well, what a wonderful thing to do.
And for so long, like so many others, I hated his works. We need to cut off the Medusa head before the snake-hair sprouts, because by the time students get to secondary school, an antipathy towards Shakespeare has often already set in, almost by osmosis.
In reaching out to over 1500 primary schools, Shakespeare Week is the perfect project to encourage our younglings to speak and love Shakespeare, free from analytical study. 

Come on board, join in, bring a treasure chest of writing to the next generation of Shakespearians.


My Top 5 Ways to Engage Kids in Shakespeare 

Quote it!

Whether it be telling your son he's a tower of strength, or your daughter does something all of a sudden, you're quoting Shakespeare. He brought over 1,000 words and phrases to the English Language that we still use today. 

Globe it!

Take your children to one of the touring productions c/o Shakespeare's Globe. Legs might get tired standing at their home on the South Bank in London, but you can take a picnic and sit in the sun to enjoy the riotous, fun touring productions. This year it's the romantic comedy Much Ado About Nothing. http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/theatre/whats-on/globe-theatre/much-ado-about-nothing-2014

 Shout it!

Boy did Shakespeare know how to insult people! By comparison, our vocabulary is fairly four-letter limited. Shakespeare's Insult Kit (c/o Chris Seidel) is a harmless, inventive and fun way to introduce your kids to the richness of his words. Get to it, thou artless, bat-fowling bugbear!

Explore it!

Pick a play. A nice fun one like A Midsummer Night's Dream, or a dark and bloody one like Macbeth, and explore some of those rich, vivid characters. Go to a nearby park or wood and pretend to be Witches and Faeries for half-an-hour. It's what Shakespeare's actors would once have done.

See it!

Whether it be a Manga cartoon adaptation, or Shakespeare's Animated Tales, some of the Bard's best works have been given a modern flavour. While simplified - and no replacement for The Real Thing - my 8 year old nephew adores them!