We’re all familiar with unfamiliar Performer : Audience ratios now, but next week’s 110 : 30 must still raise eyebrows; an oligarch booking the Kirov Ballet for a modest birthday bash? No, half of Year 8 at Saltley Academy performing Othello to a class from Year 7.
You may recognise Saltley from its recent appearance on The Great British School Swap, this is the fourth edition of our insanely optimistic Shakespeare collaboration with Saltley Academy in which ever member Year 8 has to perform both at school and in Stratford-upon-Avon. In 2016 Lucy Nicholls made version of The Tempest which neatly put narrators on microphones mixing genuine Shakespeare with modern language whilst visual storytelling took place on the stage. The following year we were challenged to up the Shakespeare quotient, so A Midsummer Night’s Dream contained a tiny fraction of Shakespeare’s words but what words there were were all his. We added eyes to household objects to make a puppet show to avoid students having to act as if they were in love. Last year we were challenged to do it all without puppets, so we took on The Merchant of Venice with costumes instead of puppets and with contracted scripts all perfect bound to avoid the confetti, ticker-tape phenomena of previous years.
Now we’re onto Othello and it would be brilliant to write one of those inspirational blog posts that puts a positive P.R. sheen on all news and makes everything sound fantastic and inspirational but what would be the point of that? This is seriously a challenging project for us, for the students and for the teachers and as a result it’s never easy and not always fun.
The inspiration for the project came from Headteacher Pete Weir personally experiencing the power that participation in a school play has to change a life, to fill a student with confidence, help them find their voice and kindle a love of drama and of Shakespeare. If such sentiments leave one cold then the argument that staging Shakespeare is the best way to study Shakespeare is also a cogent one. Thirdly, if you’re Pierre Bourdieu you’d be well up for this East Birmingham school’s efforts help their students build cultural capital and in so doing enhance their options as they move through life – hence this production is part of the ‘Saltley Guarantee’, experiences that will be made available to them during their time at school.
So far so excellent and even inspirational. Now we have to move onto the delivery side of the equation. 220 students, split into X-band and Y-band equals twin productions each with a cast of 110. Each band is divided into five classes who all study English at the same time. Shakespeare plays come more but often less evenly divided into five acts. So each class gets to do approximately one act each. They study the whole (contracted) play in class for half a term and the second half term is devoted to staging the show. Four weeks’ worth of English lessons to rehearse in – which is twelve hours, minus Eid, minus this and that and the hurly burly of school life, absences and arguments and scripts left at home.
Each students has a set number of lines to read. Within each class’ allocation smaller roles are played by a single student but characters with swathes of text my be played by half a dozen students operating like a tag team wrestling the script. Teachers do the casting and lead most rehearsals, we (this year Craig & I, but previously Lucy Bird & I) waft in occasionally to sprinkle magic dust around.
In practice we just echo advice teachers have already given. We’re trying to get 12 and 13 year olds to not be crippled by embarrassment when standing within 2m of each other, vaguely looking in the direction of each other, making a gesture, saying their lines (ideally from memory) as if the performance were more than an exercise in text recollection, remembering they have to stay on stage and continue acting even if their character isn’t speaking at that instant, trying not to rock backwards and forwards or side to side while speaking – or at any other time, not to lean against the back wall or proscenium arch, follow the script enough to not have to be called from the auditorium to come on stage, remember their props, speak loud enough to be heard by at least the actors they share the stage with and to swallow enough pride to wear the hat that helps the audience work out who the hell they’re supposed to be! Actually when you put it like that no wonder so many of them struggle!
Now, four weeks in, we’ve completely focused on how much more needs to happen and we’ve lost sight of all those students who have learnt their lines, who come on exactly when they should and have remembered everything asked of them.
Monday starts production week. X-Band rehearse Monday morning and perform in the afternoon at school. Then it’s Y-Band’s turn on Tuesday. Wednesday is a photo-call and the stage is dismantled. Thursday is X-Band at Shakespeare’s New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon and on Friday it’s Y-Band’s turn.