How 90 Key Stage 1 pupils came to perform The Tempest.

Blackpool Grand production photos_ April 2016. A Midsummer Night_s Dream_ A Play for the Nation._2016_Photo by Topher McGrillis _c_ RSC_189044
Pupils from Larkholme Primary School performing in A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Play for the Nation

In partnership with the Grand Theatre, Blackpool.

When teachers at Larkholme Primary School in Lancashire began their journey with Shakespeare it was with a little trepidation. “Initially the idea of teaching Shakespeare to primary school children was daunting. Where do we start? Isn’t it for secondary school children? Will they understand the language? How on earth do we do it”, recalls Catherine Watts.

Within a year of using the RSC’s rehearsal room approaches, any doubts had been laid to rest – not least because Catherine had just witnessed a group of 90 Key Stage 1 pupils successfully perform The Tempest for their parents.

This dramatic change can be explained by the new techniques introduced to Larkholme through their work with the RSC and The Grand Theatre, Blackpool. Catherine explains, “We did not set out with Act One Scene One but worked with sections of the text. It did not matter what ages the children were, they all worked with Shakespeare’s original language. We used drama and games to focus on the various scenes and the children soon became engaged and passionate as they were transported into Shakespeare’s world of court scenes, forests and islands. We took the children physically to the text through our rehearsal room approaches and created a child-led approach where they improvised and role-played. The children led the direction of the drama themselves.”

Catherine explained how the five-, six- and seven-year olds explored The Tempest“We started with a word carpet whereby the children had to describe an island using a descriptive phrase per piece of A4 paper. Within this pool of paper we added phrases that Shakespeare had written, such as ‘cloud capped towers’, ‘brine pits’, ‘midnight mushrooms’, ‘clustering filberts’ and ‘the murkiest den’. Through this game the children soon got used to hearing and using Shakespeare’s language. They loved shouting, “Hag seed, abhorred slave! Hence!” 

“The children created an island using collage materials and discussed what their journeys to the island might have looked and felt like, which greatly improved their spoken language and in turn written language. We also brought Shakespeare into other lessons, such as making Prospero’s potions in maths, and incorporating actions from the play to make games in PE. These practical methods engaged the children and were a great way of learning their lines for the play that they performed in front of their parents and the whole school.”

Older pupils enjoyed similar practical sessions in the classroom as well as trips to The Grand Theatre in Blackpool to see live performances. “Most of our pupils had never been to the theatre and they were captivated. During the performance whisperings could be heard, “I said that line in class!” “I know him Miss, it’s Malvolio.” One child was overhead constantly finishing off lines under her breath. The children were not baffled by the language but instead were extremely comfortable with it as they had heard it and worked with it inside the classroom. Acting it out had enhanced their understanding."

So after the success of Larkholme’s production of The Tempest, what’s next? Catherine summarises, “The great thing about this work is that we can show what the children can achieve when they are given the right level of challenge. Expectations are now high and we are looking ahead to develop the project. Most of all, we need to keep Shakespeare fun!”.