Our First Encounters with Shakespeare series for seven to 13-year-olds tours schools and theatres with a playful, youth-led world ruled by children and teenagers.

The play opens with up to 20 young people from local schools and colleges performing alongside a gender-equal cast of eight RSC actors and actor-musicians. For many young people involved, this is their very first exposure to Shakespeare in performance.

Director Alex Thorpe said: “In our production Ephesus feels like a youth-led world. This is why we are opening the play with a team of young people from each town and city we visit. Amelia Jane Hankin, who designed the set and costumes, and I were fascinated by the idea of a young people’s world and the question: what is that world?

“We looked at playgrounds, youth centres and where young people socialise. We wanted to create our set to be a structure that looks like it can be physically explored.”

Alex hopes each performance will reflect the identity of each individual town and city it tours. Schools have even designed parts of the set to create a sense of their hometown. The idea is, that the audience will be part of the actual play.

A group of young people wearing cloth aprons, kneeling on stage - adult actors are behind them
Young people from Nelson Mandela Primary School in First Encounters with Shakespeare: The Comedy of Errors
Photo by Sam Allard © RSC Browse and license our images

Growing up in the market town of Kendal in Cumbria Alex understands how valuable it is for the RSC to bring Shakespeare to regional communities.

He said: “I went to two amazing state schools in Cumbria. I had some amazing drama teachers and youth theatres – and was really inspired by my teachers. But I saw very limited live theatre – only four or five pieces – by the time I was 18.”

This is Alex’s RSC debut as a director and second time directing a play for a younger audience. Previously he worked as Assistant/Associate Director at the RSC. So, how different is directing for 7 – 13-year-olds?

He said: “The first time I was learning what they wanted and how you need to adapt the presentation. Young people are incredibly intelligent, astute and brave. They are far more robust than you give them credit for and up for being challenged.

“I am really aware that we live in a Netflix generation - our attention spans are short - so I wanted to make sure the flow of the play keeps moving. It feels even more important that we are bringing children into the actual production when it is their first introduction to Shakespeare."

Actor musician Paula James as Emilia
Photo by Sam Allard © RSC Browse and license our images

Working with teachers and schools

Along with our Education Department, Alex and his creative team have collaborated and learned from 18 schools, teachers and artists across England - and brought their ideas to life.

Alex said: “I genuinely think it has been one of the biggest privileges and learning curves of my career. When you are working with theatres and teachers you are working with leaders in their field. This has been brilliant!

“Every time we had an idea about the play we would take it to them and they’d say: ‘Yes that would work’ or ‘No, that won’t’. They really influenced the staging and concept right from the beginning. Having these teachers feeding back from their students was incredible."

First Encounters with Shakespeare_ _The Comedy of Errors_ production photographs_ 2018_2018_Photo by Sam Allard _c_ RSC_266270
Thomas Pickles as Dromio of Syracuse and Nicholas Karimi as Antipholus of Syracuse in First Encounters with Shakespeare: The Comedy of Errors
Photo by Sam Allard © RSC Browse and license our images

First Encounters with Shakespeare The Comedy of Errors is touring theatres and schools across the UK until 7 December. 

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