A new opportunity to work with adults new to theatre as part of Shakespeare Nation – our long term commitment to giving people amazing experiences of Shakespeare across England.

This brand new adult participation project, funded through a £492,300 grant from the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, aims to reach out to communities around the country who would not normally engage with theatre or Shakespeare. The ambition is to reach over 3,000 adults via co-productions, workshops and coach trips to the theatre.

Deputy Artistic Director Erica Whyman explained the thinking behind the project.

Why is the RSC important to people outside of Stratford-upon-Avon?

We are a national theatre company, funded by people from all over England, and we believe Shakespeare belongs to everyone. Not everyone thinks his plays are going to be for them but our experience, has been that if you can excite someone about Shakespeare and get them speaking his words and making sense of his ideas they often feel that suddenly they can do anything. The plays express feelings we all have, they tell stories about the universal experiences of life – love, death, ambition, excitement, disagreement, hope, so they can make us feel connected to one another.  And his wonderful words are part of all of our history, they help us explain ourselves, maybe especially at times of change.

What do you hope to achieve with this new part of Shakespeare Nation?

We already reach 500,000 children and young people a year with our inspirational work in classrooms all over the country, using rehearsal techniques to transform teachers’ and students’ experiences of Shakespeare’s plays. I want to invite adults who have never had that experience to participate in bringing Shakespeare to life.

I have spent a lot of time working with adults and Shakespeare – especially with the DREAM 16 project when I worked on A Midsummer Night’s Dream with 84 amateur actors and 580 young people from all over the UK alongside a professional cast. The thing that surprised me was the level of personal confidence that came from tackling Shakespeare’s words. I was working with amateur actors who already perform in their spare time and know that this is something they enjoy – and still there was this amazing shift in them.

I met people who didn’t always feel listened to in their professional lives or in a public conversation. And working with the RSC on Shakespeare, and feeling that they were valued and that they could do it and they had something to bring to it that was unique to them was very empowering. The word ‘empowering’ can be a bit of a cliché - but it made them feel that they had the power to change something and gave them a confidence in their own voice. It’s that, that I hope to achieve with this part of Shakespeare Nation.

This project will introduce Shakespeare’s plays to adults who don’t have much opportunity to participate in cultural activities, whether it’s theatre, music or art. If we can give people a sense of renewed confidence that they matter, and their voices matter, that they can make a change in the world if they want to or just that they can enjoy participating in theatre then that will be great.

How does Romeo and Juliet (the upcoming RSC tour) fit in?

Romeo and Juliet is a play about a divided communities, and a lot of our communities today are divided – adults and young people on different sides of a debate and adults perhaps feeling they don’t know how to be optimistic for their children. Shakespeare is on to something which hasn’t gone away.

We will be working in Blackpool, for example, with communities who can feel frustrated by the inequalities in the town - the money that comes into the town from tourists but which doesn’t seem to affect the outcomes or life-chances of people in the town. We are looking at some of those divides through the story of Romeo and Juliet, letting those adults hopefully talk about things that really matter to them. Wouldn’t it be great if we could find a way to close those divisions by talking about it through story and theatre?

Headshot of Erica Whyman
Deputy Artistic Director Erica Whyman

Have you started recruiting the adults you will be working with?

We’ve just begun, as we’ve only just been told that we have funding from the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation. We’ve talked to the partner theatres about who they want to work with. For example, in Nottingham we’ve talked about working with a community choir who have access to music but so far not theatre. In Blackpool we are looking at a group of Blackpool landladies. It’s a play about romance and love and Blackpool is a city of love and romance and the landladies of Blackpool probably see a lot of romances come through their doors. We use that to get into bigger conversations about their community.

Why engage with adults who are not interested/don't have access to theatre?

We need to make sure the next generation is excited about being creative and feels confident to go to the theatre and make theatre and take part in things.

Right now some of our communities are quite vulnerable. There is a lot of inequality in opportunity.  And I think that adults can sometimes be at least as vulnerable and isolated as children and young people, who at least have school communities to hold and encourage them. I think that lives have generally got lonelier. People don’t necessarily live near their families any more, working lives can be punishing and mental health and well-being is a big issue in this country. A lot of people are suffering various kinds of mental ill-health. I feel that it’s important to make sure that adults have the kinds of opportunities that can really improve people’s well-being and their sense of self-worth.

Can you give us an example of how theatre changed somebody’s life?

There is a woman called Becky Morris who played Bottom for me in A Midsummer Night's Dream in Nottingham. She had enjoyed drama at school, but hadn’t done very much and let it go. She was working in a sandwich bar and someone invited her along to an amateur group and she went along in trepidation. She found that she really loved it. Two things happened as a result; she started working as a teaching assistant in a school (and she’s still doing this, specialising in drama) and  she became only the second woman in the history of the RSC to play Bottom. She’s like a female Les Dawson – completely amazing. So her confidence levels and her sense of what she’s capable of went through the roof. How she thinks about the rest of her life and what she will hand onto her son – a sense of creativity and courage.

Why did you choose to work with these theatres?

Eleven regional theatre partners started working formally with us on our long-term partnerships with schools (the Associate Schools programme) in 2012 and 2013 respectively. That programme is a foundational part of Shakespeare Nation. Each partner theatre faces a different series of challenges in building an audience for theatre or reaching their schools and communities through theatre – not everyone grows up thinking that going to an art gallery or a theatre is for them. What unites all of us is desire to build the confidence to take part and be creative wherever you are. Some of these partner theatres are now also working with us on adult participation.

What do we gain from working with them?

It would be easy to sit in Warwickshire or London and guess what it’s like in the rest of the country. We would be wrong most of the time. We get to hear what it’s really like to keep a theatre open in Bradford for instance. And we also get partners who have direct day to day contact with the schools, teachers, parents, vulnerable adults in their areas.

It also means that the theatre can offer a stage or rehearsal room for the communities we are talking about. Bringing everyone to Stratford is not practical or not what would have the most impact. There’s nothing better than performing in front of your friends and family.

Our partner theatres know how their audiences work. They are all different, but give us a sense of the funding, political and social pictures of where they are, and sometimes we can be good partners by being national champions for them. If we are informed, we can do that better.

Describe why Shakespeare is important in 3 words.

Universal. Timeless. Emotional. The plays get in your heart and are about how we feel. People often think you have to be a certain kind of clever or you have to have studied the plays to understand every word. In the end they are stories; really well told. They make you feel something. We’ve all felt jealous, love, frustration or arrogance. We’ve all been disappointed with our parents. He knows how we feel.