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Stephanie Street: Schools need to recognise that teaching theatre empowers everyone

Young people performing in the 2017 Shakespeare Schools Festival Young people performing in the 2017 Shakespeare Schools Festival
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It’s that time of year for the round-ups and the best-ofs. We’re a nation of list lovers and there’s nothing like December 31 to bring out the great British pastime of ranking things in order of preference.

So, for what it’s worth and a little ahead of schedule, here is my best of 2018. It was not the work of a professional company, far from it. My favourite show of this year took place just last week as part of the Shakespeare Schools Festival and was a carousel of abbreviated tragedies and comedies – Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night and The Comedy of Errors to be precise – produced by schools and performed by eight to 15-year-olds at the New Wimbledon Theatre.

The emotional impact of that night was greater than I think any other night at the theatre has had on me. Two big, primal emotions in particular: joy and despair. The inarticulable joy of watching a shy, softly spoken 10-year-old boy swell with confidence and fill the New Wimbledon Theatre with assured, perfectly timed asides. The delight of seeing an 11-year-old girl stand tall and proud as the Thane of Cawdor, without the need to explain why Macbeth was a she. The pleasure at seeing a group of teenagers from an inner-city academy absolutely owning the language and politics of Caesar.

The despair crept up on me after the show, on my journey home. I should give a disclaimer at this point: one of the schools in question was my daughter’s, Streatham Wells Primary. I’d been enlisted to lend a hand to the year 6 teacher whose class was performing The Comedy of Errors.

The headteacher is a great lover of theatre but it was her first time directing Shakespeare so she asked if I’d shore her up. In truth, she needed very little support – I did some work with the class, an incredible bunch of 10 and 11-year-olds, on verse and voice. But it was the tireless work of the class and the teacher, during school hours only, that created their wonderful show.

This brings me back to my despair. We as a family – and my daughter especially – are so fortunate to be a part of her wonderful school, to have a headteacher committed to teaching the arts within curriculum time. This is at a time when so many schools are excising it in favour of ever more literacy and numeracy, forgetting not only the life-shaping experiences that making art gives but also the deep educational value of putting on a piece of Shakespeare.

The Shakespeare Schools Foundation is a wonderful charity, empowering schools to make these plays with excellent resources, but it takes a brave, visionary head to take on all the other costs involved.

I couldn’t help feeling that my daughter’s great fortune was outweighed by the misfortune of many schools and children who would not be afforded such an experience.

Now more than ever we need the big lessons of collectivity and empathy that making theatre teaches us. My big wish for 2019 is that our teachers and leaders remember that.

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