Notes from Erasmus Teaching in Cyprus - Teaching Shakespeare(s)

Blog: 'Forget 'Shakespeare', and think of 'Shakespeares'.

So, it seemed to me that SHAKESPEARE (AND FRIEND) energised the whole of Performance Lab, across year groups, with the world of Shakespeare. Neil Sisson's great work in this respect really seems to be paying off, I feel very lucky to count him as a colleague.

So I'm going to piggy back on his coattails (not for the first time) and share with you a blog version of a bit of a lecture I am giving this week as part of an Erasmus+ teaching visit to Cyprus. It's my take on the key principles behind teaching Shakespeare…

At the centre of my approach is the philosophy of my most loved theatre practitioner, Keith Johnstone. He wrote my favourite thought about teaching in the introduction to his masterpiece, Impro. It's probably worth knowing that, before becoming a theatre maker, he trained as a teacher and his experiences of working in what people considered 'rough' schools in South London were instrumental in his approach in later life.

Johnstone said that,

'Many teachers seem to me to be trying to get their students to conceal fear, which always leaves some traces - a heaviness, an extra tension, a lack of spontaneity (…) Instead of seeing people as untalented, we can see them as phobic, and this completely changes the teacher's relationship with them.'

As someone who has taught Shakespeare to all sorts of people, one of the main universal elements in common is this fear. Comments like: 'I don't understand Shakespeare', 'It's for posh people', 'I'd rather study something more modern' - all come from this phobia. A huge part of teaching Shakespeare is not to see students as empty headed or untalented but to see them as scared of getting it wrong.

This also links to crucial concept in pedagogy which comes from the Brazilian educationalist, Paolo Freire. He criticised systems of education which viewed students as being like empty bank accounts, who came to school or university to have them filled by the currency of knowledge. He called this the 'Banking Model of Education'. Teaching Shakespeare that assumes there is an authenticity or central truth to the subject is falling prey to this idea. Everybody has a position on what they are learning and, for me, the best educational experiences are conversations from both sides.

Is there something to get 'wrong' or 'right' with Shakespeare? For me, Shakespeare's scripts are like the gopher game at an amusement park, the moment you think you've got them down, when you've hit the gopher on the head, another one pops up. I think the best way to teach Shakespeare is to not resist this.

As a child, I used to find this frustrating. I’d go for walks with our springer spaniel, Ralph and my dad. I was studying for my A Levels and my brother was at university and my mum was working in London a lot. I had to spend a lot of time with my dad and he has always liked talking about Shakespeare. Lucky me. Whenever I'd try and get my head around something Shakespearean he'd reply with 'Yes… and not.'. It would drive me up the wall but now I realise that this is central to Shakespeare's continued international appeal - as the great teacher of Shakespeare, Rex Gibson wrote,

'Forget 'Shakespeare', and think of 'Shakespeares' is salutary advice. The plays are capable of and invite diverse interpretations. They resist the notion of definite performance.'

So what does an educational model that embraces multiplicity look like? Again, let's take a sidestep away from Shakespeare practitioners to look at some broader ideas. Ken Robinson is an educationalist who is a champion of creative pedagogies. He is a great believer in celebrating divergent thinking and I want you to listen to him talk about this concept. (from 07:40)

If you can't be bothered to watch the video, don't worry. Think about how many uses of a paper clip you can come up with: This is divergent thinking.

Let’s map this 'paper clip' approach on to responses to Shakespeare's work. Just as there are thousands of potential uses for a paper clip, there are thousands of ways of getting learners to interact with Shakespeare's work. There are thousands less if one believes there is an authentic way to do Shakespeare 'properly'. Fundamental to this, for me, is the fact that Shakespeare wrote plays. Let's head back to Rex Gibson, who wrote:

'Treating Shakespeare as a script (and calling it so) suggests a provisionality and incompleteness that anticipates and requires imaginative, dramatic enactment for completion.'

The great thing about plays, and perhaps I'm showing my true colours as a theatre director here, is that they are not fully formed. This interpretative space is vital. It is for this reason that, if you were to ask me my top five favourite experiences of watching Shakespeare (and his contemporaries) in the theatre, only one production would be considered a linear representation of a play script in English.

If someone reads this and wants to know what they are - leave a comment!

It makes logical sense for me; therefore, to make sure that performance based pedagogies are part of the approach to Shakespeare's scripts in learning environments. Performance insists on pluralities and this is why I love teaching this subject and why creative approaches are essential tools in the arsenal of any teacher.

These tools are what I'm going to be exploring with students over in Cyprus - I'll report back with how everything went.



If you're interested in some of the ideas within this blog I'd recommend you have a look at:-

Keith Johnstone's TED Talk:

Ken Robinson on divergent thinking:

Rex Gibson's Teaching Shakespeare:

I'm a Lecturer of Performance Studies at Sheffield Hallam University. Prior to this, Associate Director at the Stephen Joseph Theatre & Community and Education Director at the Orange Tree Theatre.

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