Leigh Wolmarans describes how he went from a Shakespeare sceptic to a Shakespeare advocate.
Leigh Wolmarans is the CEO and Artistic Director of our Partner Theatre, Silhouette Youth Theatre. He first came to the RSC as a headteacher and has continued to work with us as a teacher and director.
To say that a teacher's conference in Stratford-upon-Avon was a lightbulb moment for me would be an injustice – it was far more than that. I have not always been Shakespeare's greatest advocate.
I remember watching my incredibly talented sister play Bottom in a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in South Africa and then playing Beatrice many years later when she was studying drama. I remember thinking how amazing it was and how I loved watching her perform, but due to the mind-numbing way we had been taught Shakespeare in my secondary school, I did not see that it had any relevance for me. The language was difficult to get a handle on, the plot was far too complex and I was addicted to film, this was theatre, a poor relation in my opinion at the time.
I remember seeing The Merchant of Venice in a local theatre in Durban and being impressed with Portia and her role in the court scene. However, there was no follow up or follow through after the play and we definitely did not get a chance to speak the words or to get the play on its feet. So the excitement of a good production soon dissipated, and the real world took over.
As someone who is passionate about the performing arts I was constantly conscious that Shakespeare was someone that I should know and whose plays I should have read. There was always a tutting noise from other creatives when I confessed that I didn’t see the point at all. That was my attitude when I walked in as a headteacher to a teacher's workshop at the RSC about using rehearsal room practices, led by Miles Tandy in Stratford-upon-Avon nearly 10 years ago.
Within the first five minutes I was hooked. We worked with the text using rehearsal techniques. We laughed, we moved, we communicated, and we had fun. The text wasn’t scary or worrying, it was a vehicle for exploration, and we owned it. We were allowed to bring our own views and opinions to the piece, and we could play with words. We were looking at scenes from The Comedy of Errors and I was in stitches, working alongside my headteacher colleagues made it even funnier.
The reason it was a lightbulb moment was that I got to see the play that night and it all clicked, something had switched on. The work that I had done throughout the day was on stage that night and for the first time I fully understood Shakespeare. I got it!
But what to do with it? How to get others to understand it? How to get my young people to connect with it? And more importantly – what is it? That is when the mission began, the target was to spend as much time as possible finding out what it was. I could either dip my toe in to the water, go for a swim or just go for a deep dive – those that know me will know that there is only one option.
I packed off all my teaching staff to Stratford-upon-Avon to experience what I had experienced. They had a training day and then got to watch a production and it was incredible.
The conversations on the bus on the way back to Northampton were inspirational. Teachers were discussing characters, text, interpretations, things they liked, things they would change and many said that it had opened their eyes, as it had opened mine. The next morning they were still talking about it and there was a definite buzz across the school, we had won over hearts and minds and it was now time to get our young people involved.