Episode 152      23 min 00 sec
Be not afraid of greatness: Shakespeare's vital role in the 21C classroom

Professor of education Jonothan Neelands explains why the plays of the Bard are as relevant and stimulating as e'er they were to students of all ages today. With host Jennifer Cook.

"Our experience with young people is that Shakespeare only begins to make sense once they start to speak it and once they start to act it.  So our very simple formula is that the best rehearsal room is like the best classroom and vice versa." -- Professor Jonothan Neelands





           



Prof Jonothan Neelands
Professor Jonothan Neelands

Professor Jonothan Neelands is a National Teaching Fellow, Chair of Drama and Theatre Education and Director of Teaching and Learning in the Institute of Education at the University of Warwick. He is an experienced trainer and workshop leader with a national and international reputation for delivering high quality professional training and development opportunities. Research interests include: participatory theatre and democracy; cultural and creative learning; the politics of cultural and education policy-making; teaching in urban settings; the sociology of educational disadvantage and the articulation of a pro-social pedagogy of arts education.
He is an associate of the CAPITAL Centre for creativity and performance in teaching and learning, which is a joint initiative between the University of Warwick and the Royal Shakespeare Company. He is closely involved in the RSC’s Stand Up For Shakespeare campaign to improve the quality of Shakespeare teaching at all ages and stages through an ensemble and rehearsal room pedagogic approach. Professor Neelands has advised government on the identification and training of talented young performers and is Research Consultant for the National Council of Drama Training and a member of the RSC Education Advisory Group. 
Professor Neelands has trained teaching artists at the New Victory Theater in New York since 2005, he also runs a Post Graduate Award for RSC actors training to work in schools. Recent funded research projects have been in partnership with Birmingham Royal Ballet, RSC and the National Association of Youth Theatres amongst others.

Jonothan was in Melbourne conducting intensive workshops at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education. These workshops were part of the Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching Shakespeare.

Credits

Host: Jennifer Cook
Producers: Kelvin Param, Eric van Bemmel
Audio Engineer: Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink
Series Creators: Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param

The Harold Bloom excerpt was taken from his interview with Christopher Lydon on Radio Open Source.
http://www.radioopensource.org/harold-bloom-on-the-playing-field-of-poetry/

View Tags  click a tag to find other episodes associated with it.

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VOICEOVER Welcome to Up Close, the research, opinion and analysis podcast from the University of Melbourne, Australia. 


EXCERPT - HAROLD BLOOM
What we think of as our own emotions - the way we love, the way we laugh, the way we sorrow, the way we grieve, the way we suffer anxieties - how did we learn these things?  We learn them either by directly reading Shakespeare or having it refracted by those that came after Shakespeare but who wouldn't have written as they without Shakespeare.  A man who meant a great deal to me, Owen Barfield, he once said to me at lunch - I was so struck by it I’ve repeated it 20 times since, and everything I’ve written about Shakespeare I repeat it there.  He liked my repeating it, he told me in a letter, so he finally put it in one of his books.  He said - I’m not sure I have the exact wording, it was pretty close, almost verbatim - it can positively chagrin us when we come to realise that what we want to think are our own emotions originally were Shakespeare’s thoughts.  That’s a beautiful sentence and a very profound and truthful observation.


JENNIFER COOK
That was world-renowned literary critic, Professor Harold Bloom of Yale University, and he’s reflecting on the importance of the works of William Shakespeare.  It was an excerpt of a longer interview in mid 2011 on Radio Open Source.  I’m Jennifer Cook, thanks for joining us.  So how do we convey the passion and the pathos of the bard to young people who have never heard him before?  For many of us, our first introduction to his plays involved sitting in class reading pages and pages of text out loud, trying to come to grips with phrases and rhythms that often seemed like a foreign language and, if we didn't understand, sometimes we were told to read slower and louder.  Professor Jonothan Neelands is lead academic for the new Royal Shakespeare Company and University of Warwick Centre for Teaching Shakespeare.  He is a National Teaching Fellow in the UK and Chair of Drama and Theatre Education in the Institute of Education at the University of Warwick.  Jonothan is in Melbourne conducting intenisve workshops at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, helping teachers and teachers in training bring Shakespeare alive in their classrooms.  He believes there must always be rich and relevant human content at the heart of theatre and drama, and he asks us to imagine what our schools would be like if every lesson in every subject in the curriculum was taught as if the students had the choice to be there or not.  Professor Neelands, welcome to Up Close.


JONOTHAN NEELANDS
Thank you very much.  I’m very pleased to be with you.

JENNIFER COOK
Now, Jonothan, I had the privilege this week of sitting in on part of your workshop here at the University of Melbourne and I have to say there was something just so uplifting and invigorating about having all those engaged educators in one place; they were literally playing together.  Now, as a journalist it is fascinating to see your theories of agency and action and process right there in front of me.  I could see the passion of them, I could see the flashes of surprise as these adults began to view - it was Henry V that you were talking about - in ways they’d never thought of.  Is that your aim?


JONOTHAN NEELANDS
I think it is and that notion of choice is very important.  One reason why the Royal Shakespeare Company and Warwick are working together is that we want to give more young people the choice of Shakespeare in their lives.  You know, for many of us, if we love Shakespeare in the way that Harold Bloom does it’s because at some point in our life someone led us to him.  If you're lucky, it’s a good teacher.  For others it may be a family member or a friend who first introduces you to the joys and rewards of Shakespeare.  I mean, Shakespeare makes demands on us; you need somebody to hold your hand and guide you and show you the gains that can come from that. And teachers are, for a lot of children, the most likely way that they’re going to either love Shakespeare or want nothing more to do with that.  That will absolutely depend on the passion of the teacher but also, we believe, in the way in which Shakespeare is introduced and taught to young people.


JENNIFER COOK
There was a teaching student in the workshop who I really admired her honesty, actually.  She said straight out, look, I tried reading Henry V, I picked it up, I couldn't do it.  I think she watched the movie of it and just seeing her work through that process and the way she was able to engage and bring it to life.  So in some ways I thought she’d be very reflective of a lot of the students you'd be trying to reach in a classroom.


JONOTHAN NEELANDS
Yeah, she would and, I mean, it’s interesting that Harold Bloom talks about reading Shakespeare, and for many people it is the poetry and they are there as texts for contemplation and it has become part of their language.  But we must remember that Shakespeare was a playwright, and an extraordinarily popular playwright, and in a sense all we’re doing is just reclaiming that tradition of Shakespeare as a playwright and the plays as scripts for action as well as being there as texts for contemplation.  Our experience with young people is that Shakespeare only begins to make sense once they start to speak it and once they start to act it.  So our very simple formula is that the best rehearsal room is like the best classroom and vice versa, and the way to deal with the plays is to do what actors and directors do, is to get up, start moving around, looking for the choices that are there for us in terms of action, findings ourselves in the plays.


JENNIFER COOK
Now, in that spirit, I’d like to play an excerpt.  We went along to the workshop and we recorded a bit; you were talking about Romeo and Juliet.  So let’s just take us now into that workshop, into the dynamism.


WORKSHOP EXCERPT
So what might young people enjoy about this little bit of scene work?Often in bullying, the person who assaults is often the victim, they’re provoked.It’s like winding them up?Provoked until they assault.Then they get done for it?Yeah.Who’s just, in that language, kind of, yeah, who’s right and who’s wrong.  I think kids really connect with that fact of when you're bullied - but I was right, sir, I was right, you know, because I said or did the right thing.


JENNIFER COOK
Tell us about that, Jonothan.  What part of the play are we in?  I can imagine where we are.


JONOTHAN NEELANDS
We’re just on a short exercise which we call Romeo and Juliet in 20 minutes, where the play is divided into parts, there’s a bit of narration and some lines from the scenes and it’s broken up around the class and the class don't know the whole play until they come back together and tell the story.  Before telling the story we’d just looked at the opening scene, because one of the great joys of Shakespeare is how he uses the opening scene to build the world of the play.  We just wanted to build that kind of hot marketplace and the combination of upper class, rich young men armed, idol, dangerous, ordinary working people going about their business and the provocation to fight, knowing it was against the law but just taking it as far as it can go without getting into trouble.  Of course, you know, that's something that young people understand from the playground, it’s what they understand from winding each other up.  So what’s interesting how quickly it leads to discussions about us and what we know and what we bring to the play and what we bring to the world.  The beauty of the exercise is I’m not telling you what to think, I’m not valuing the play, I’m not doing anything; I’m giving you the story and asking you to make your choices about how to tell that part of the story.  Often you end up being just as I was there, a listener.  You know what I enjoy teaching Shakespeare, what I really enjoy about that is listening to what young people say in response to it.  When they get it and when they see that it’s open for them to interpret and make their own choices about how things are said and how things are done and how they feel, then I find that that really opens them up into discussions which are not just classroom discussions, you know, their human discussions - they’re people, citizens, the public sitting in a space thinking about the world through the story, through the characters, through the bits of text which resonate with them.


JENNIFER COOK
You said two really interesting things there: looking through the story, and I do remember very clearly one of the teachers being quite struck with how she felt a part of the story.  So you could see she’d shifted from that teacher role of trying to get the students to understand, to actually feeling as if she was part of a narrative.  That idea of being part of something bigger, that’s part of life, that’s why you're trying to get across to the student.


JONOTHAN NEELANDS
I think it comes as a surprise even to experienced teachers that once you embody, you know, once you get up and walk in the shoes of Tybalt or Mercutio, and Romeo, once you come up against the other characters it’s a visceral - this is not an intellectual abstract exercise - you're walking the talk.  Something very powerful comes from that because you're living through your body an intellectual position which is not your own, you know, a historical character from 400 years ago.  Somehow it makes sense because the body understands, you know, the body understands that these movements, these feelings, these hot and cold, the sweat, the nerves, the whatever, is part of the meaning of it.


JENNIFER COOK
Now, Harold Bloom in that same Radio Open Source interview, he said if you really learn to read deeply for yourself the works of Shakespeare then you will be changed.


JONOTHAN NEELANDS
Yeah, I mean, I’m English, of course, and we’ve got to be careful in the way that we sell Shakespeare to young people.  You know, I don’t sell him as being the greatest writer of all time or being necessarily an icon of Englishness.  The world has shown that he is a world resource; he’s performed all over the world and people from Nelson Mandela through to all kinds of others have found strength in the words, so it’s important in the multicultural, pluralist society that we have that we all feel that we can own his work now.  But in some ways, you know, that's made richer by understanding something about his world then and how our preoccupations have remained the same, and that's what I think Bloom is also referring to.  You know, we have always loved, we have always sorrowed, we have always fought, we have always dealt with complex emotions.  Shakespeare was writing for a hugely, complex, difficult period of change in a country dominated by Queen Elizabeth - I mean, Queen Elizabeth is the big figure of the age, you know, not necessarily Shakespeare - performing plays within a lifetime the English people would execute a king.  I mean, these are turbulent political periods and in some ways the mastery of Shakespeare was a response to the times; he had to invent new ways of language, new ways of making theatre in order to hold the mirror up to his turbulent, ever-changing period.  Don’t we live in those times again and maybe we always do.


JENNIFER COOK
This is Up Close coming to you from the University of Melbourne, Australia.  I’m Jennifer Cook and our guest today is Jonothan Neelands and we’re talking about teaching Shakespeare in schools.  Now, Jonothan, you were just talking then about the difficult times and the complicated times that Shakespeare wrote in.  In the workshop that I sat in on, you were talking about Henry V, weren't you, and can you talk us back through that context about what happened at the end of the year and the play was performed in the March the following year?


JONOTHAN NEELANDS
Yeah.   There’s a long tradition in democracies of connecting theatre to being at war, for the Athenians, The Trojan Women and The Persians were both performed when the Athenians were at war as a reminder that their enemies were not barbaric animals, they were civilised, sensible, intelligent people like themselves; to always see the human in the other, even if they were in conflict.  Henry V is apparently about an old war between the English and the French who, you know, had a lot of war going on.  But when it was performed in Shakespeare’s time it wasn’t during a period of war between the English and the French, it was during a nine year Irish rebellion.  There are other wars going on around that time and for most of Elizabeth’s reign England was at war with the Low Countries.  But the nine year rebellion in Ireland killed 100,000 people - this was a huge, unpopular, difficult, failed war.  So the importance of Henry V is that it wasn’t a pro-war play, it wasn’t an anti-war play, it was a going to war play.  Six months before the first night of the play an English army of 4000 had been ambushed and massacred, prisoners killed, you know, 1000 of them ran away, hardly any of them came home.  That week the Earl of Essex was raising an army of 16,000 to go back and take revenge and the people of London were divided; some were ready for it and up for it, some really questioned why.  Many were pressed into the army, many were taxed to pay for the army.  There was a lot of discontent, a lot of heated debate in a society that was very closed, you know, where you couldn't really speak your mind very freely.  So Shakespeare put this play that wasn’t about swaying anybody’s mind one way or the other, but it was about opening up a conversation about what does it mean to be at war.  When we come to Henry V before we look and dig into it deeply, we do remember it as this great heroic Laurence Olivier and all the rest of it.  But we go straight from once more into the breach to a group of soldiers who are just like, yeah, yeah, I’m not going, who are robbing the dead bodies of their monies.  You know, Michael Williams, a disgruntled soldier, says to the king, you'd better be right about what you're doing because if not all of these lives are on your head.  The king, who is heroically there leading the army forward and crying, God for Harry, England and Saint George, cuts the throats of his prisoners twice.  So it’s a complex, troubled, difficult person - there’s nothing straightforward or simple in Shakespeare; you can’t pinpoint where he is in all of that.  That means that we can find our position within the play, or whatever our position might be.  I mean, we started the exercise off with a quotation from Winston Church, we sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.  Our first exercise was just ask, you know, how comfortable or uncomfortable do you feel with that idea and to stand across space.  So we had some who absolutely felt comfortable with that, you know, that’s the only way we can live is knowing that those men are ready, and others desperately uncomfortable.  The purpose of the workshop is not to pit those people against each other, it’s to open up a forum where with those differences of opinion we can have a conversation and talk about who we are and where we’re going.


JENNIFER COOK
Which is what Shakespeare does in the play, doesn't he?


JONOTHAN NEELANDS
Absolutely.
JENNIFER COOKWith so many voices layered upon layered in the scene cuts.


JONOTHAN NEELANDS
Yeah, yeah.


JENNIFER COOK
Now, it is one thing - and I couldn't help but think this watching the workshop - it’s one thing to have this roomful of these incredibly committed bright, energetic adults.  How does that translate to a classroom, say, you know out in the country where the kids, you know, lack of resources, for whatever reason, and it’s the first time they’ve come to Shakespeare.  Let’s just say, a less than enthusiastic group to work with.


JONOTHAN NEELANDS
Yeah.  I think it’s something that drama teachers are perhaps more familiar or conditioned to, because you can't make young people do drama or theatre, particularly when they’re teenagers.  They’re often nervous and frightened and there’s all kind of peer pressures which, incidentally, is one reason why in the sense of teaching Shakespeare we want to encourage people to start teaching Shakespeare, you know, as young as they possibly can because the adolescent years are probably not the right time to be introduced to the plays for the reasons we’re talking about.


JENNIFER COOK
That's right.  You had some primary school teachers.


JONOTHAN NEELANDS
Yeah, we had primary teachers in there as well.


JENNIFER COOK
How does that go with primary kids?


JONOTHAN NEELANDS
It goes very well, you know, because the stories are so powerful in themselves and we’ve developed ways of telling the stories so that we don’t have to start off by sitting and watching the whole play.  We can have a character tell us something about the story or we can have active ways of telling the story, like the Romeo and Juliet in 20 minutes that you saw.  So I think drama and theatre teachers are used to the idea that there has to be the appearance that young people are doing it by choice, so there has to be some lure, there has to be something in there that makes it interesting enough for young people to forget their other preoccupations and want to become involved.  So we look at how we might fillet the play or find an idea or find some lines or find something that connects as a theme or a way of telling the story that’s really engaging so that young people are drawn into it.  Then, you know, in the end if you've got a choice between we can sit it here and read it around the class and not understand a word of it and be bored silly, or we can get up and move around and laugh and enjoy and make, you know, which would you rather do?


JENNIFER COOK
Now you've followed the process down, haven't you, from teaching the teachers into the classroom.  Tell us about that, tell us some of the things you've seen, how it’s worked.


JONOTHAN NEELANDS
Well, our new centre is based on five or six years now of working with classroom teachers and we’ve been offering them this same qualification, Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching Shakespeare, but through a three year partnership.  So we don’t expect teachers to come for a morning or a day and go away and be able to create miracles, we work with them over time.  They come to us at Stratford to do intensive courses.  We go back with them into their schools to work with them and to work the neighbouring schools.  What we do with teachers is exactly what they will do with the young people and children.  We don’t do Powerpoints about how to do it or lecture notes about how to do it, we do exactly the same work with the teachers that we will do.  So if you're a teacher you know what that feels like and you're able to think to yourself, well, I can see some of my kids not doing this and I can see some of my kids loving it.  You can ask that question and you can get an experienced voice back - not necessarily from me, often from another teacher in the room - about, well, I’ve had that problem and this is what I do.  So we help each other with that, you know.  I mean, you have to want to give Shakespeare as a choice to young people, you have to want to do that, and if you are motivated then you will start to develop the experience and the skills that will make that important.  A lot of work has been me listening, you know, and not being the one who talks.  In the classroom where the teacher’s genuinely interested, you know, what are you making of this, how is Juliet like us, not like us, and is genuinely interested in how young people respond to that, you know, that’s when young people start to feel that they have some ownership and some voice and some control over it.  Then I think, you know, a lot of those other problems start to disappear.  Another really important gift that Shakespeare gives us is that he doesn't tell us how to do his plays.  He doesn't say whether it should be shouted, whether it should be whispered, whether it should be spoken by people stood close together.  There are very, very few stage directions; there are some contained in the text but it’s mostly free and open.  That means that young people absolutely can make their own choices.  So this old dead poet speaking a strange language and they can take that and they can decide how it’ll be said, how it’ll be moved, how it’ll blocked out on stage, and I think that gives them a huge sense of ownership over it, you know.  The choices I made today, I made Shakespeare today through my choice.  It may seem idealistic but I hope through that process and, through reflection on the themes, that young people realise that, you know, there are other interpretive choices they might make in their own life, you know, that these small choices that we make around these plays might lead them realising that they perhaps have more choice in their life than they might think they do.


JENNIFER COOK
And a template?


JONOTHAN NEELANDS
Yeah, yeah.


JENNIFER COOK
So, Jonothan, when you're bringing Shakespeare to the classroom, how much consideration or censorship do you give to themes such as suicide?  Do you apply any censorship?  Do you try to siphon it down?  Do you aim it at different levels?


JONOTHAN NEELANDS
I think I want to answer that by talking about Shakespeare as being a bit of a Trojan horse, really.  If you talk about bringing Shakespeare into the class and bringing Shakespeare into schools, everybody agrees that that's a wonderful thing.  But what you can bring through Shakespeare is what really interests me.  We had a conversation today that apparently in Queensland teachers cannot raise teen suicide, talk about teen suicide, have any dealings with teen suicide in the classroom but they can teach Romeo and Juliet.  Now it seems to me that (a) if the system hasn't recognised that there’s a double suicide at the end of Romeo and Juliet they really need to get an education and, secondly, do you think that young people are not going to have that conversation and I would rather they were having it in my classroom.  It’s like your teenage kids, where would you rather that they were hanging out?  Wouldn't you rather they were doing it in your house?  It’s the same - I want to be in the room when they’re talking about those issues.  I trust young people, you know, I mean the majority of young people are good kids, they’re healthy, they’ve got good values, they’ve got good attitudes.  Let them talk to each other, you don't have to intervene as the adult and tell them what’s right and wrong, they will have that conversation together if they feel that it’s the free and open discussion that they can have.  Young people are, you know, they’re good at protecting themselves as well.  I mean, they will go so far and they will go no further, you know, they know when to back off.  I can't make them feel but I can create the conditions for feeling if that’s what they want.


JENNIFER COOK
Jonothan Neelands, thank you so much for your time today, it’s been an absolute pleasure.


JONOTHAN NEELANDS
Thank you very much.


JENNIFER COOK
You’ve been listening to Up Close and I’ve been speaking with Jonothan Neelands, lead academic for the New Royal Shakespeare Company and University of Warwick Centre for Teaching Shakespeare.  Relevant links, a full transcript and more info on this episode can be found at our website at upclose.unimelb.edu.au.  Up Close is a production of the University of Melbourne Australia.  This episode was recorded on 7 July 2011 and our producers were Kelvin Param and Eric van Bemmel.  Audio engineering by Gavin Nebauer.  Up Close is created by Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param.  I’m Jennifer Cook, until next time, goodbye.


VOICEOVER
You've been listening to Up Close.  For more information visit upclose.unimelb.edu.au.  Copyright 2011, the University of Melbourne.


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