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Patrick Spottiswoode: Is it surprising kids don’t know Shakespeare was a playwright if they never go to the theatre?

School pupils watch a performance of The Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare's Globe. Patrick Spottiswoode says it's vital that children watch Shakespeare in performance. Photo: Amit Lennon
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The results of a recent LAMDA poll of 11-18 year olds make for depressing reading. If Shakespeare is the only named author on the national curriculum, how is it that 31% of those surveyed failed to recognise the playwright’s name?

That only 53% had been on a school trip to a theatre is equally depressing, but the two stats might be related. I suggest that close to 100% of the students would have recognised Shakespeare’s name as an author of ‘school text books’. After all, why should they know of him as a playwright if they have never experienced his plays as ‘play’?

If not one of their ‘five a day’, a theatre trip should certainly be one of five experiences provided for every student while at school to ensure their cultural health. I will leave readers to select the other four.

The financial lollipop that the chancellor is due to send every school following the recent Budget may be a sweetener but probably won’t help the cultural cause. Cuts in school budgets have meant that money for school trips is scarcer than ever. Add cover and coach fares to a ticket price and heads have to think long and hard before disrupting timetables and diverting funds from some other pressing need.

Students meet a playwright where the playwright wanted to be met – not in a classroom but in a theatre

So theatres, also hit by cuts and increasing costs, have to find ways to reduce ticket prices by seeking support from trusts and foundations and from the ever-more-necessary corporate pound.

Enlightened boroughs, such as Newham and Southwark, are also playing their part. They acknowledge the importance of introducing students to live theatre and that theatre should be a cultural entitlement for their citizens. Newham’s established programme, Every Child a Theatre Goer, is the brainchild of the borough’s former mayor, Robin Wales. The scheme covers the cost of a theatre visit for every Year 6 pupil across the borough. Southwark is seeking to create a similar scheme for every primary student.

As a Southwark theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe applauds the initiative. We have also welcomed thousands of Newham students to our productions thanks to the budget priorities set out by Wales. If only other boroughs would follow suit.

But Shakespeare’s Globe also revels in an extraordinary example of corporate support, which, like any great show in town, is on a roll and now in its 14th year.

Every March, Playing Shakespeare With Deutsche Bank provides free tickets to a Shakespeare production in the Globe theatre to more than 18,000 students from London and Birmingham secondary schools. A further 7,000 tickets are subsidised and free Saturday matinee performances are staged for community groups.

With online resources, workshops and a production, Playing Shakespeare doesn’t just support the national curriculum, it animates it. Students meet a playwright where the playwright wanted to be met – not in a classroom but in a theatre.

The play must be the thing.

Patrick Spottiswoode is director of Globe Education at Shakespeare’s Globe

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