Learning Lines

An educational trip to India

February 12, 2014

Chris White in IndiaMy colleague Rebecca Gould and I are both Education Associate Practitioners with the RSC. We have just returned to the rain in England having been working on Shakespeare outdoors amongst blooming coconut trees in India.

In partnership with the British Council, we were there to share the active teaching approaches to Shakespeare inspired by the RSC's rehearsal room practice that form the bedrock of our work in the UK.

We began in Delhi with a group of 30 English and performing arts teachers and teacher trainers. Some of them had been working for more than 30 years using Shakespeare and some were just starting out.

Just as in the UK, but even more so in India, we quickly discovered that 'school' doesn't mean one thing: there is a huge variance between government [state], private and international schools.

Familiar educational challenges
The challenges they face will be familiar to some of you: securing space for practical work and convincing head teachers and parents of the benefits of working on Shakespeare in performative ways. Their education system places a huge value on learning by rote and a common observation was that this usually diminished young people's enthusiasm for the language as it became another thing to 'learn exactly in order to pass exams'.

We responded by focussing on the pleasure of the language; getting the group to hurl Shakespearean insults around and chase each other up the steps of the theatre while speaking the words of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as they move ever closer towards murder.

The ultimate Indian Shakespeare play?
The play that met with the strongest response was King Lear. With its themes of honour, inheritance, divided kingdoms, loyalty, marriage, extreme weather and father-daughter relationships, Rebecca and most of the group declared it 'the ultimate Indian play'.

Stiff Westerners
We swapped the squawking parakeets of Delhi for the paradise birds of Pondicherry to work with a group of 25 theatre makers who work with young people in and out of schools. Exercises such as making a bower for Titania, Queen of the Fairies, become a great deal easier when the surrounding trees have leaves larger than human heads.

For a week we lived, ate, worked and talked together, allowing us to learn about different forms of Indian theatre practice. One of these, Kalari - which is also a martial art - I tried to learn in the early mornings before our sessions. I thought I was doing pretty well, until one of the group turned to look at me with incredulity, asking, 'why are you westerners so stiff?'

Working with Shakespeare's language
For our part we again tried to focus on the language, particularly after discovering that when Shakespeare is used in projects with young people, the story may be used as a starting point but the words are often updated or rewritten.

Late night conversations revealed that this had something to do with the legacy of colonialism as well as the barrier that Shakespeare's status can sometimes create. We encouraged people to work with the original language, whether in English or translated into the first language of the group they are working with.

The ambition and invention of the projects they conceived during the week suggest that young people all over India will be facing some brilliant first encounters with Shakespeare in the near future.

Image: Chris White in India.

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Teaching Shakespeare