The Shakespeare Schools Festival is a project that allows schoolchildren the opportunity to put on half-hour versions of Shakespeare plays in professional theatres around the country. It involves 600 schools and 12,000 young people, so this is no after school drama club but a huge project, and one that brings together pupils from every kind of school.
I spoke to recent Oxford grad, Will Hooper from the Festival. He told me how the project allows children to engage with Shakespeare in a totally different way from how they would in the classroom, how it allows the pupils to connect more with Shakespeare and understand the way his plays can be reinvented and found to always be exciting and engaging. Hooper highlights the additional benefits – besides the obvious cultural ones – as better social skills and literacy.
The problem arises with the question of funding – with whom should the responsibility lie for paying the £700 registration fee for a project like this? The press release rather vaguely says that teachers have ‘fought hard against budget cuts’ to get the registration fee- does this mean that they have been negotiating with those at their various schools who control the budget, or does this mean they have been raising money in other ways? Mr Hooper was unable to answer my question as to where he thought the responsibility for funding this project ought to lie. I would suggest that the responsibility for paying does not and ought not to lie with the individual teachers. Obviously there is no funding from the arts council, since they seem to be pulling funding from theatre projects all over the place, but if more cuts in general look like they are looming, it is going to be the arts in schools that lose out.
On the website for the Festival, there are testimonials from teachers involved with the project about what it has done for their schools, and what it has done for the pupils in terms of making Shakespeare accessible and, as the press release puts it, ‘[staking] their claim to their cultural heritage’. The list of patrons is impressive and includes Dame Judi Dench, Kevin Spacey and Sir Tom Stoppard. The project is affiliated with the National Theatre. Backed by prominent people and institutions in the world of theatre, and reaching a huge number of children and schools, this is something that could really make a difference by providing an opportunity not just for pupils to get to know Shakespeare better, but to rediscover themselves as performers and get involved with one of the most central part of our country’s cultural history.
The Festival project is aimed particularly at disadvantaged schools. The kind of schools, one would imagine, that if there was any more of a budget cut would lose the ability to pay the registration fee, and whose pupils – who are (one would imagine) those least likely to be able to get involved in performing Shakespeare – would be least able to raise the money for it amongst themselves. Reading Shakespeare in the classroom is one thing, but it is far more accessible and exciting when it is performed. As Mr Hooper suggests, when simply read off the page there can be a lack of excitement among the pupils, but when they have a chance to act it out and really get involved with it, there is a hugely positive response. The danger is, I think, when the money gets tight, things that are “non-essential” get cut, but it would be an incredible shame if pupils were to miss out on something like this for the sake of money.
Over and over again, it is the generation going through education now that is being told it must cut back and miss out because of the money mistakes the generation before us have made. I sincerely hope that this project is able to continue and money can still be found.
For more information, head to www.ssf.uk.com/registered