Shakespeare: A worldwide classroom

Kolkata - Part 2

February 26, 2013

Tracy's WSF blog - Kolkata 

Anmol, Anjana and Dana have worked mainly with a newly established upper school extracurricular drama club called 'Masque'. The group consists of 27 students, most of whom are following the Arts Award programme while the others just love being involved with theatre.

They spoke eloquently about how the club had boosted their confidence and their ability to work with each other, and they have been busy passing on their enthusiasm by running sessions with younger students.

There is immense parental pressure on these middle-class young people not just to succeed but to be better than everyone else. They prepare for leaving exams in Grade 12, but the best colleges also demand the best marks from additional entrance exams. Anjana's daughter was in the middle of all that and working very hard.

It's a trend I have seen everywhere: few of the young people I have met around the world are considering a career in the arts - their aspirations are on high-earning careers (lawyers, doctors, accountants) and they appreciate the cultural cachet that Shakespeare gives them in supporting such aspirations. But those who have worked actively with the text, those who have explored it, played with it, owned it, also value their experiences more personally for the internal companionship it gives them and the external camaraderie they have found through it. The DPS teenagers valued this experience so much that they were all in school, in uniform, in their holiday.

Watching Anmol with his peers, his leadership skills shone through. He has passion and confidence and obviously relishes attention and responsibility, yet is also humble and keen to learn. Reading his diary of the project, he often reflects on the mutability of Shakespeare and the wonderful, unexpected interpretations his peers come up with: 'Lesson of the day: you cannot expect everyone to think like you', he wrote.

When I led a workshop on Macbeth with the Masque group, they had so many ideas that they often spoke over each other in a rush of thoughts. It was clear they relished the complexity of the text and learning through Shakespeare, as well as learning about him and his language. One student described his experience: 'In all his plays there is a hidden 'us' somewhere; I discover myself.' They were intellectually thoughtful but also had a lovely easy humour with the text and with each other

Working with the teachers, that same easy humour shone through. When teachers and students were working together, one older lady, looking so elegant in her sari, took on the role of Charles the Wrestler in As You Like It, flexing her muscles and 'throwing down' her opponent, a brawny 16 year old boy, to the great amusement of everyone! On a feedback form, a teacher wrote: 'The best thing about teaching Shakespeare is learning in the process.'

Wednesday was the big day. Along with the Masque group, we were joined for the day by 40 students from four other schools and their teachers: about 75 participants in total, working in the library, around a large central column (columns again! [see other blog posts]) In this region, most students study As You Like It in Year 9 and 10 and Macbeth in 11 & 12, so we were going to look at these texts that they either knew or would soon be studying.

It was fantastic to have Lali to work with - we got on so well and talked so much that we had already established a shorthand about what we were doing and why. It was also wonderful to have her energy and her African perspectives which gave a richer experience for the Indian students.

During the day, the students and their teachers offered many insightful comments on 'Why Shakespeare?' They clearly had a strong sense of Shakespeare as an icon of literary heritage but voraciously took on concepts of interpretation and delighted in 'how Shakespeare asks questions and allows us to find our own answers', 'he actually makes us think and gives us the chance to think for ourselves', 'he makes you think and think harder'.

But my favourite comment has to be from a Grade 9 student who told me: 'Normally I fall asleep when we study Shakespeare, but today I stayed awake - and I wanted to do more.' I'm sure she added that last bit when she realised she might not have sounded polite enough.

Our last experience with Masque was to watch their adaptations of Macbeth. Working in three groups, they had each taken a section of the play to explore through an Indian cultural context.

The first group used the rivalries of aspirational school boys to examine Macbeth's relationship with Banquo, complete with Bollywood witches; the second group set the murder of Duncan in an Indian political scenario and the third made Macbeth a (female) Indian mafia leader, haunted by Banquo via mobile phone.

Families had been cordially invited and, in true Indian tradition, were asked to discuss what they had seen following the performances. I loved this, not only a willingness but an expectation that culture should be considered and analysed. Anmol told me the students had once sat late into the night together discussing Banquo's moral fibre - why wasn't he lured by the witches into grabbing power for himself? As they said: Shakespeare 'makes you think and think harder'.

Photo by Tracy Irish © RSC

by Tracy Irish  |  No comments yet

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Teaching Shakespeare