Teachers from Bradford’s Samuel Lister Academy describe their journey within the RSC’s Learning and Performance Network.

In partnership with The Alhambra Theatre, Bradford

Most Year 7 students beginning their studies at the Samuel Lister Academy have had no contact at all with the works of Shakespeare. That’s probably not so unusual – and when you bear in mind that the vast majority of Samuel Lister students are from minority ethnic backgrounds and well over 50% of students are entitled to free school meals, it’s unsurprising that this icon of high British culture is usually met with apprehension.

Set in the market town of Bingley, close to Bradford, West Yorkshire, the Samuel Lister Academy joined the RSC’s Learning and Performance Network in 2014, where they were matched with partner theatre The Alhambra. The school’s aim was to broaden the horizons of its pupils. Lizzie Hutchinson explains that “we believed that a partnership with the RSC and Bradford’s Alhambra Theatre would open up new opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise be available to them”.

Teachers spent three weekends in Stratford discovering RSC rehearsal room approaches and developing their skills as leaders. When they brought their new skills back to the classroom, the impact was immediate, says Lizzie. “The active rehearsal room approaches to Shakespeare’s text transformed students’ attitudes to Shakespeare. Students who once perceived his plays as boring and difficult now think of them as interesting, relevant and even fun!”

It’s not all been plain sailing of course. When Year 8 and 9 students were scheduled to see an RSC broadcast of The Two Gentlemen of Verona a number of parents phoned the school to say they didn’t want their children to take part, and pre-screening workshops were greeted with a great deal of moaning. But once the desks were pushed aside and the class ‘ringleaders’ were engaged, the group came on board. “In the end, the students were more positive and enthusiastic than we dared hope”, Lizzie recalls.

As well as spreading the new teaching techniques through Samuel Lister’s English department, lead teachers were challenged to introduce rehearsal room approaches to the wider school and to other schools in the Bingley area. “We hosted two INSET days at the Alhambra Theatre and invited the entire English and drama departments at Samuel Lister, plus other local schools and a nearby FE college. 33 people attended including four students who would go on to be Shakespeare Student Ambassadors. The students established very quickly that the rehearsal-based classroom is an exciting, rigorous and inclusive place to learn. All the teachers in the room found these four students very inspiring and, we suspect, would have been more reluctant to take part in activities without their presence.”

The changes in pupil attitudes has been noted at a senior level in the school, which gave teachers confidence in planning the second year of their time with the Learning and Performance Network.

A highlight of was when 30 Samuel Lister students joined a professional RSC class to perform in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play for the Nation at the Alhambra Theatre in April 2016. Lizzie explains how “It was an incredible experience for those students lucky enough to be selected but more than that, it was something the whole of the school community could take pride in. The RSC coming to Bradford, and our students performing with them on a professional stage, was a terrific opportunity to reinforce the idea that Shakespeare is not something alien and strange, but belongs to them, their school, their city and their community. Looking forward, we are very excited about all that we can go on to achieve together."