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Shakespeare Schools Foundation – A Festival journey

By Stuart Rathe

Stuart Rathe is Education Manager for Shakespeare Schools Foundation. In this posting he writes about his involvement in the Shakespeare Schools Festival – both as a Teacher Director and ‘on the other side of the curtain’ working as part the Festival itself. In a developing relationship, the British Shakespeare Association is keen to support the activities of the Shakespeare Schools Foundation.



“Because of SSF, I was able to bond with lots of people and make friends with people I never thought I would” – Poppy, student, Pontypridd

I’m Education Manager for Shakespeare Schools Foundation (SSF) – a cultural education charity which uses the unique power of Shakespeare to change the lives of young people all over the UK.

Every year, we run the world’s largest youth drama project, with 1,000 schools performing an abridged Shakespeare production in professional theatres up and down the country. It’s non-competitive and it brings whole communities into theatres.

We are most certainly about Shakespeare, but we are also about improving life chances and creating opportunities for young people from primary, secondary and special school settings. These pupils grow in confidence and aspiration, and they develop fantastic collaborative skills. Our evaluation data shows that Festival participation also helps them to improve academically, and to encourage a greater love of learning.

Before joining SSF, I was a Teacher Director myself. I participated in the Festival with my Year 6 classes for several years, performing everything from Hamlet to Twelfth Night. I was even lucky enough to accompany a group of my ten and eleven year old pupils to 10 Downing Street for a charity gala last year, where they got to perform an abridgement of Julius Caesar in front of David Cameron in his very last week in office! I’ll never forget young Millie pointing to that bloodied shroud and asking us to imagine the most unkindest cut of all, as assembled politicians and dignitaries listened, rapt, to a ten year old girl from Merseyside commanding sixteenth century language with such incredible poise and understanding…

But my proudest moments as an SSF Teacher Director were simple moments like the time young Owen told me that the most fun he’d ever had in school was playing Laertes, or watching our Lady Macbeth, Livvy (who was considered to be low attaining in English) take centre stage at a professional theatre with a magnificent archetypal performance!

The Festival from the other side of the lens

Now that I work for SSF, I get to see another side of the Festival: that huge logistical jigsaw involving nearly thirty thousand pupils and over 130 theatres. And I get to watch other schools participate in the Festival: a slightly more relaxing experience as I fondly remember my own time as a Teacher Director!

I’m based in the North West of England, and so my Festival journey this year begins at the Floral Pavilion on the Wirral, where I get to watch my old school, Overchurch Juniors, perform Henry V. I’m full of pride as I watch my ex-colleague Collette Corlett, who’s taken the Shakespearean mantle from me and directed a magnificent Henry – and certainly the funniest I’ve ever seen (with a particularly rousing rendition of ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ from the entire ensemble as French Princess Katherine tries to get to grips with the English language with the help of her exasperated maid Alice). Ten year old Archie plays Henry with gusto, standing on a chair to deliver the St Crispin’s Day speech, as his rag-tag gang surround him and cheer. I know he’s channelling a little of Kenneth Branagh in his performance (not least because he proudly tells me he’s been studying different versions of the play on YouTube). Not bad for someone who hasn’t even hit their teens yet!

Michael Flynn from St Joseph’s Junior School at Shakespeare Schools Festival Bain Gala

Later that month, I’m at the Contact Theatre in Manchester, watching Eccles’ St Mary’s Primary. Teacher Director Peter Webster has put together some incredible visual storytelling (such as red ribbons dangling from daggers to signify Duncan’s flowing blood). The performances are great: a true ensemble committed to telling a remarkable story. I keep interrupting Peter to tell him how great the show is (probably very irritating as he is busy with the theatre technicians, plotting light and sound design). When I point out that one of the narrators has a particularly engaging delivery, Peter proudly tells me that the young boy has English as an Additional Language. Backstage, Banquo beams as I tell him that his command of Shakespeare’s language made it sound like he was speaking in entirely modern vernacular.

And finally, my travels take me to Knowsley, near Liverpool. There’s a great Shakespeare buzz around Knowsley at the moment, as the borough is soon to be home to a new Jacobean style theatre and Education Centre, called Shakespeare North, which traces its roots back to the Earl of Derby’s patronage of Shakespeare. The audience at Knowsley Culture and Leisure Park is made up of proud mums, dads and grandparents, and it’s a joyous night. One production includes multiple Macbeths: if you’re wearing the red sash then you’ve become Macbeth and have your moment in the spotlight – a wonderful way of spreading the load, and of giving every pupil a chance to shine. Elsewhere, there’s a charming Much Ado, full of singing and dancing. I wonder if the Teacher Director has seen the recent Mexican themed Globe production, as the vibrant colours and dance routines seem to take inspiration from South America.

As I attend my final Festival performance for 2018, I’m reminded of the pride I felt every year as an SSF Teacher Director and the incredible sense of achievement felt by each and every cast member at the end of a successful performance. We did it! Quickly followed by… “What play shall I tackle next year, and how soon can I register for the 2018 Festival?”

In addition to our flagship Festival, SSF provide school workshops for KS2 and GCSE, Teacher CPD and curriculum schemes of work to accompany specific plays.

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