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Jacqui O’Hanlon: ‘Shakespeare is global property – he works in diverse classrooms’

Jacqui O’Hanlon. Photo: Royal Shakespeare Company

As an actor who soon realised that she preferred discussing plays to appearing in them, Jacqui O’Hanlon, director of education at the Royal Shakespeare Company since 2008, has long been one of Britain’s key innovators in theatre education.

Petite, passionate and friendly, O’Hanlon is unfailingly enthusiastic when describing the RSC’s Next Generation programme. Launched this month, it will be her department’s first ‘talent agenda’.

“Everything our busy education department does has always stressed inclusivity and we remain totally committed to that,” she says. “But in every school we work with, there’s always at least one outstandingly talented student in urgent need of very specific support and development. We focus on hard-to-reach areas with high levels of deprivation, so the chances are she or he won’t realise how talented she is. And the family may not know where to turn for advice.”

Next Generation aims to meet the needs of such young people in a three-pronged scheme: Act, Direct and Backstage.

“We shall recruit 25 12-18 year olds from all over the country and bring them to Stratford for acting workshop weekends and holiday courses free of charge, with supported travel starting this autumn. In summer 2018, they will present a piece of work.” At the same time, in partnership with Intermission Theatre and the Regional Theatre Young Directors Scheme, there are plans to develop young directors “and prove to them that they have a real skills base” through courses, mentoring and work experience. And in a programme that has already been piloted, 42 talented backstage 14-18 year olds will spend a week working in teams on stage management and props before presenting a scene from The Tempest.

The Learning and Performance Network Festival with year 3 pupils in St Albans, 2015. Photo: Rob Freeman

The scheme is a major addition to the extensive range of work already achieved by O’Hanlon’s department. The overall thrust is that Shakespeare should never be read like a book – he wrote plays not novels. You have to do it on your feet, learning through applied rehearsal room techniques rather than sitting at desks. “Then you see how Shakespeare’s language speaks to everyone,” O’Hanlon says, also mentioning some nursery-class work the RSC did on King Lear. The company believes you should start as young as possible before negative cultural assumptions begin to bite.

This is why, after a long consultation, O’Hanlon and her colleagues published an influential manifesto in 2008: “Do it on your feet. Start it younger. See it live.”

“We’re planning celebratory, evaluative work to mark the 10th anniversary in 2018 because we’d really like to find out and demonstrate what effect the manifesto has had on Shakespeare and young people and how things have changed over the decade,” she says.

So where did it all start? “Theatre in general and Shakespeare in particular was always a passion,” says O’Hanlon. “But when I left school, for various reasons, I went down the ‘sensible’ job route and did three years in the civil service.” At 21, she went to Birmingham University to study drama and train as an actor for three years – as a mature student, she qualified for a full grant. On graduating, she was signed to an agent, did lots of repertory work and formed a touring company that took radical adaptations of Shakespeare’s work into schools. “I was always very interested in the education work that ran alongside performance,” she says.

While performing in Kate O’Reilly’s Belonging at Birmingham Rep, O’Hanlon had a lightbulb moment and realised she wanted to educate rather than act. “I made a pivotal decision and took a job as artist in residence in an education action zone in schools across the north of Birmingham, promoting the concept of drama as a tool to enhance literacy and self-esteem as well as being vital in its own right.”


Q&A: Jacqui O’Hanlon

What was your first job? Working at Wimbush Bakery on Saturdays.

What’s your next job? I love the one I’m doing.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? There isn’t a defined career path – it will evolve. Say yes to virtually everything you’re offered in the early days. Keep on going.

Who or what was your biggest influence? In terms of people, everyone I work with at the RSC – and then Cicely Berry and Richard Hahlo.

What’s your best advice for auditions? Remember that whoever you are auditioning for wants you to be brilliant and is rooting for you.

If you hadn’t been a director of education, what would you have been? Still something in theatre and involving young people.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? No. I can never remember them.

O’Hanlon also worked in the National Theatre’s “wonderful education department”, led by Jenny Harris, and for other organisations before eventually taking a short contract at the RSC. “It was a 10-month contract but I’ve never left,” she says.

Her first RSC post was as “creative ensemble lead” at the beginning of Michael Boyd’s artistic directorship. “That was terrific experience,” she says. “Michael was doing his Tragedy Season and I was right at the heart of it and beginning to create activities based on rehearsal techniques.” When, in 2007, O’Hanlon was asked to cover Maria Evans’ maternity leave, it was, she reckons, at least her fourth RSC job. Evans decided not to return and O’Hanlon took over permanently as director of education.

Much has changed since Wendy Greenhill was running RSC education in the 1980s, when she seemed to be a one-person band. “I think she was,” says O’Hanlon, explaining that the department and its consequent status has grown immensely. “There are now 16 people in the full-time team and we work with about 35 freelance artists who are trained in RSC approaches. Many of them are actors in the current company.”

The RSC’s Regional Schools Celebration in 2011 involved working with nursery classes on King Lear. Photo: Stewart Hemley

O’Hanlon’s department now goes into 1,800 schools a year, working with more than half a million young people throughout the UK. “We also have partnerships in the USA, China and other places,” she says, before describing Shakespeare as “the world’s playwright”, “global property” and “cultural capital”. She adds: “Shakespeare represents education systems worldwide. No other playwright commands this position, so, because he speaks to everyone, Shakespeare is the perfect playwright to bring into our diverse classrooms. He is definitely not part of a monoculture.”

O’Hanlon stresses that Arts Council funding, box office revenue and other sources of income mean the RSC can offer a mixture of free and paid-for education work. There is also the annual First Encounters With Shakespeare production – an abridged version of a play that tours schools. “The spring 2017 show is The Tempest directed by Aileen Gonsalves, who is working with RSC artistic director Gregory Doran on the main house production of The Tempest, so the two shows will be in parallel,” she says.

The RSC education department has a commitment to regional theatres as partners, not least because it’s an excellent way of making contact with schools in “cultural cold spots”. O’Hanlon cites as examples schools in remote coastal towns that don’t have easy access to a big city and those in former mining areas tucked away in valleys a long way from theatres. “We have a national remit and I’m determined that we shall fulfil it,” she says.

And what about O’Hanlon’s own career? Is this dynamic, articulate woman planning to move on? She chuckles. “Look, I learn something new every day,” she says. “I am hugely energised by the challenge of enabling everyone to have Shakespeare in their lives. So I shall stay here.”

CV: Jacqui O’Hanlon

Born: 1966, Birmingham
Training: University of Birmingham (1987-90)
Career: Director of education, Royal Shakespeare Company; head of professional development, RSC; actor and practitioner at the National Theatre; artist in residence in Birmingham schools
Agent: None


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