"It is a good divine that follows his own instructions; I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done than to be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching."
Portia, The Merchant of Venice, Act I, Scene II.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Now in these hot days is the mad blood stirring...

Phew! The Shakespeare Festival is over! It has been mad but brilliant.

Our journey started right back at the beginning of term 1 when I called a meeting to see who was interested in participating in this year's University of Otago Sheilah Winn Festival of Shakespeare in Schools. Our college has a long tradition of involvement in the Sheilah Winn and has been selected to go to the National Festival a number of times in the past. In 2010 two of our students were in the group chosen to go to London to Shakespeare's Globe.

Because I love Shakespeare and enjoy a bit of amateur dramatics I have always been a keen supporter of the Sheilah Winn, but I have learnt from doing it over the years that I am not really a very good director!  I understand the text and am good on how to deliver the lines and on the character's motivations, but I still feel I have a lot to learn when it comes to mise en scene and use of the stage, etc. I do my best but it is great to have help from those with better understanding of stagecraft.

This year I was really lucky that Kassie McLuskie, a drama and dance teacher with plenty of Shakespeare experience, including two courses at Shakespeare's Globe, just happened to be looking for short term relief work at our college and offered to assist with Shakespeare. She was absolutely the answer to my prayers because I find Shakespeare a big ask on top of teaching and running the department, even though I love it. I had already had a couple of meetings with the interested students and had told them that I was keen to do the market place fight from the start of Romeo and Juliet, since it looked like we had a large group interested. When Kassie came on board it was truly serendipitous that she also wanted to do the opening scene from Romeo and Juliet.  The only fishhook was that Kassie was due to go overseas four weeks before the Regional Festival, so could not be there for the final weeks of rehearsals and the performance.  However, we agreed from the start that this could work, with Kassie setting the production up and me assisting and then taking over when she went to the UK. 

Kassie and I had similar views on the importance of allowing all interested students to participate - we both feel that all students who want to be involved should have the chance to be - the Festival is about celebrating Shakespeare and getting kids engaged with the plays and having fun. Neither of us was interested in auditioning to select a few experienced senior drama students in order to come up with a brilliant but exclusive production.

We had about 20 people come forward, some of whom came for a few rehearsals and dropped out, until the cast finally settled at 16. Our college goes from Year 7 to 13 (it combines the equivalent of a Middle School with a High School) so our cast ranged in age from 10 to 18 years. Many of them did not know each other, so Kassie started with a lot of team and relationship building to build the group dynamic. The early rehearsals therefore involved a lot of pair and group work as well as name games etc until people began to get to know each other. Overall, the cast was not particularly experienced. Of the 16, only 3 had been involved in Sheilah Winn before, and only a handful were actually drama students, most were just interested students with little or no acting experience.

As well as building the group ensemble, Kassie got the students to explore archetypes such as the Sovereign, the Carer, the Trickster and the Warrior. These were all types which would be present in the market place at Verona. After a few weeks when Kassie and I were more familiar with the students' abilities, we cast the speaking roles. Again, we found that our thinking was similar on who would best suit which part. One thing which we found amusing was that we had one girl who was a NZ representative fencer, so we wanted her in one of the fighting roles. We cast her as Benvolio, as she didn't have quite the stage presence for Tybalt, but she came to us at the next rehearsal and asked if it was alright for her to swap roles with the girl playing Escalus. Both girls wanted the swap so we agreed, but it meant our fencer didn't get to do any of the sword fighting!

One of the huge frustrations with a school production like this is simply getting the students to come to rehearsals. Each week we rehearsed one lunchtime and one day after school: inevitably for every rehearsal someone had a clash with a class trip, an important committee meeting, sporting event, someone was away sick, or occasionally paid employment prevented some from being at the after school practice.  We had our first cast meeting on 8 February and our first rehearsal on 14 February. We rehearsed at least twice a week, sometimes more. It would probably amaze a professional actor but not any of my teacher colleagues to hear that the first rehearsal we had with every single cast member actually present was not until Monday 23 April!

Kassie's last rehearsal with us was on 29 March, and at the time Kassie left, we had not had a rehearsal with even every principal present, let alone the whole cast! But by that point, Kassie had completed all the blocking and the production was basically set up. From there we practiced and polished, coped with the intervention of the school holidays (in fact, rehearsed twice during the break) and came back for an intensive week of final rehearsals in the first week of this term. Our metalwork teacher, Marcus Thompson, made some wonderful swords for us, and the fabric teacher, Benita De Kock, sewed costumes so that we could tell the Montagues from the Capulets and know that the Prince was top dog!

Finally, Saturday 28 April was the big day: the Kapiti Regional Festival. We piled costumes and props into a car and one of the school vans, and headed for Kapiti College. When we arrived we were able to sneak some rehearsal time on the stage before heading to our green room (a classroom) to get the students into costume and makeup. Back to the hall for our 15 minute technical rehearsal and then it was time for last minute makeup adjustments. We were not scheduled to perform until the second half of the programme, so the students sat in the back of the hall to watch the first half.  This had unexpected spin-off benefits: having heard a number of other students rushing and mumbling through their lines and not being loud enough or articulating clearly enough, our cast came out of the first half with a new appreciation of what I had been nagging them about for weeks - the importance of speaking slowly, clearly and loudly enough to be heard and understood! It definitely had a positive effect on delivery of their lines.

Our students performed well and I was really proud of them. It was their best ever performance, and you can't ask for more than that. At the end of the afternoon our scene was awarded the Kapiti Observer Cup for the Most Innovative and Creative Performance, but honestly if they had won no prize at all I still would have been so proud of them - they were AWESOME!!!!I was also proud to see our students going up to actors from other schools to congratulate them on their performances and achievements. 

Most of our group are keen to be involved in Shakespeare again next year, and some of the seniors are already planning student-directed scenes for next year. Our performance at the school assembly today (and that was another drama getting everyone present to do that!) has also had a positive outcome with some of our audience commenting to their form teachers that they would like to join in the Shakespeare next year.

Even though it is incredibly stressful worrying about why they aren't at rehearsal and worrying if it will ever come together, the time and effort that goes into the production is definitely worthwhile.  I enjoyed Saturday's Festival so much and there are 16 students who now love Shakespeare and have had a lot of fun, with others in the school who are interested in having a go in the future. 

And that is what this job is all about!  Yeeha!

Above is the video of the performance at the Kapiti Regional Festival on 28 April.

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