June 11, 2006

2006 Sheilah Winn Festivals of Shakespeare in Schools

Applause for the messenger!

To be or not to be, that was the question – and, as with Hamlet, the pause that offers a momentary reprieve may only be a stay of execution.

Over Queen’s Birthday Weekend, 520-odd – from extremely normal to extraordinary – high school students from 21 regions nation-wide gathered at Wellington East Girls’ College to participate in the 2006 Sheilah Winn National Festival of Shakespeare in Schools.

Of the 45 excerpts staged over two days, 23 were 15-minutes scenes or compilations, five of them student-directed. The 22 five-minute scenes were all student-directed.

In a fully-focused yet relaxed and cheerful atmosphere, this huge undertaking – run with great efficiency by the Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand (SGCNZ) with a vast army of volunteers – was the culmination of 21 Regional Festivals involving more than 5,000 students from 253 secondary schools (over half the national total) held from mid-March to early May.

Yet this is the enterprise – the 21 Regional Festivals and the National Festival event – that has had its funding cut by Creative New Zealand (CNZ), the Ministry of Education (MoE) and the British Council. The total sought by Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand (SGCNZ), from various sources, to support and manage the whole project is $50,000.

Enter a Messenger …  

In a weekend filled with drama, comedy, history and romance (see below), in a hall full of hugely committed and passionate participants who loudly supported their own regions and made equal noise in appreciation of excellence from anywhere, it was something of a surprise that the biggest cheer was earned at the closing ceremony by a messenger, in the guise of a local body politician.

When Wellington’s Deputy Mayor Alick Shaw announced that the Wellington City Council would commit funds to ensure the 2007 Sheilah Winn National Festival of Shakespeare in Schools will happen, in Wellington, the roar of the crowd must have resonated around Mount Victoria, warming the icy southerly that carried it. This isn’t official but the amount I heard was $20,000 which is four or five times the city’s usual contribution. And it’s a reprieve; a stop-gap measure while more sustainable funding streams are put in place – as they surely must be.

For Wellington, the benefit of bringing hundreds of student performers and production support people to the city is clearly a sound investment in sustaining the Creative Capital brand. The weekend activities include visits to Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School, Victoria University’s Department of English, Theatre & Film, and cut-price attendance at a couple of the live theatre shows on offer at professional theatres. Besides, there was a very real possibility that had trust sponsorship become the Festival’s saviour, it may well have been conditional on the event moving to Auckland.

But the Sheilah Winn Festivals of Shakespeare in Schools (SWFSS) is a nation-wide event with inestimable social and educational value. More than 50,000 people have participated over the 15 years it’s been going and it continues to grow in numbers, strength and quality. In the face of this, the failure of CNZ and the MoE to continue the modest funding requested of them is incomprehensible.

Who should pay for what?

As I understand it, CNZ declined the $15,000 requested to cover the professional fees of the assessors and workshop tutors. This is the same CNZ that commissioned an $80,000 report – from Sydney-based company SGS: Economics and Planning – on New Zealand’s participation at the Venice Biennale. $80,000! Has a New Zealand playwright or novelist ever been granted that much to write a work of, arguably, much greater value? I think not. And that’s just an incidental side cost: nothing compared to the actual cost to the taxpayer of our being part of the Biennale … Read on, ask yourself which endeavour better sustains the creative lifeblood of the nation, per dollar spent, and if you have an opinion go to the relevant Forum and post a comment.

Why should CNZ fund those professional fees? Because employing professionals ensures high standards of informed mentoring by leading professionals who, in return, are challenged, stimulated and sustained by the fresh creativity of a new generation biting at their heels. It is a Winn-win investment in creative excellence. Many students who have gone on to find their vocations in creative industries name this event as key to their development. In fact I cannot think of an occupation or endeavour that would not gain value from this formative experience.

Apparently the relevant pool of MoE funding simply ran dry, thus denying the SWFSS a dip. Surely after 15 years there is a case for the few thousand being asked for to be factored into the annual budget as a given. Certainly it should come up for review every three years or so but given the extraordinary infrastructure of interconnecting activities that lead up to, and go way beyond, the Queen’s Birthday Weekend event, some level of assured sustainability has been earned.

Why should the MoE support the SWFSS? First, because the work done by students offers many opportunities for NCEA assessment, so the educational outcomes are clearly there. But the educational values reach way beyond what the system can measure. Let me try to count the ways.

Engaging with Shakespeare’s texts fuels a love of language and intelligent interpretation that open countless doors to life opportunities. Engaging with his themes and his insights into human behaviour – at an experiential, role-playing level – can only broaden the participants’ ability to comprehend their immediate and wider worlds and find their place within them.

The process of giving life to excerpts of Shakespeare’s works, in live performance – in ways that engage both their peers and their elders – involves mental, physical, vocal, creative and social challenges that can only enhance the participants’ skills in communication (verbal, visual, physical and metaphysical), self-presentation, teamwork, leadership, project management … all those other skills required to bring raw creativity into focus and make it accessible to others, as a means of social exchange.

Self-esteem and a full range of social skills thrive in this environment, which involves no losers. While reaching the national ‘finals’ is a huge achievement in itself, specific areas of ability, skills and excellence are celebrated by presenting 38 awards across the board. On the Monday, the assessors offer general feedback and engage with participants in a Q&A session.

The British Council’s past contributions have, I believe, paid for the importing of an assessor from the UK, so the withdrawal of that means that will no longer happen. This may not be a big issue. Shakespeare belongs to the whole English-speaking world, ventures into many non-English-speaking countries, is universal and it’s the way his works connects with us in the here and now that proves its classic status. That said, what happens in New Zealand radiates outward to connect with international participants in the UK, so it is a shame the connection is not made at this point. (SGCNZ was established in 1991 as part of and international network linked to Shakespeare’s Globe in London. The NZ centre maintains weekly communication with them, at least, and several joint benefits accrue from the relationship.)

Flow-on effects

For participants who excel, the Regional and National Festivals are stepping stones towards:

·       the SGCNZ National Shakespeare Schools Production week, this year in New Plymouth (late September), involving intensive study of Shakespearean topics and workshops on three of his plays, culminating in a public performance, and

·       the Young Shakespeare Company that travels each year to London and Stratford-Upon-Avon for 10 days of workshops, talkshops, walkshops, attends performances, is rehearsed by Globe directors and tutors and actually performs on the Globe stage (for which each student must raise their own funding, although they do get some support with applications to gaming and other organisations, and with management of their funds).

Observations on this year’s work

For me, as a compulsive consumer of professional theatre, it is salutary to be reminded of the difference between raw, committed talent and the abilities of trained professionals, fully in command of their creative and expressive faculties. While this festival recognises potential and offers young talent opportunities to works towards acting – and designing and composition – as a vocation, this is not its main focus.

What impresses me most is the total commitment every participant brings to their work. Despite the usual transgressions of meaningless wandering, literal gesturing, falling inflections and over-acting, the belief every performer brings to their role – be it individual or as part of an ensemble – goes a long way towards compelling my willing suspension of disbelief.

Those who do bring physical and vocal dexterity to their roles, shine. I’m especially fascinated to observe that where actors have fully learned, marked and inwardly digested their words then engaged in committed physical activity – like dancing or fighting – their lines come over with greater clarity than many delivered in a static state, where the actor’s only focus is on saying those lines.

Most memorable for me are:

·       A pre-Pakeha Mâori Hamlet where traditional posturing and non-verbal sounds are superbly integrated into the action. I want to see the whole production now, with Te Rauparaha as Fortinbras.

·       Another Hamlet, punctuated with rock ‘n’ roll and salsa, with a superbly fluent and intelligent Prince, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as the Blues Brothers and a wonderfully stroppy Ophelia.

·       A third Hamlet in white-face, evoking puppetry in the play-within-the-play (student-directed).

·       A truly classy and humorous rendition of the French lesson scene from Henry V (student-directed).

·       An hilarious Midsummer Night’s Dream sequence where the Athenian lovers – as Puck’s playthings – rooted broad comedy in emotional truth and got away with it (student-directed).

·       Another Hermia and Helena played as a cat-fight between two smart professional women in their office.

·       A Pacific Island Romeo and Juliet, making great good sense of clan-based rivalries and wowing the audience with drumming and dancing.

·       An As You Like It set on a high country sheep station.

·       A ‘barmy army’ Henry V where English football fans stayed fiercely loyal despite the huge odds against them (student directed).

·       A visceral Titus Andronicus (Tamora and her sons) or two, vying with a couple of Lady Macbeths and Margaret from Henry VI Part 3, for the scene with greatest cruelty.

·       Amid the plethora of cackling witches from Macbeth, one with three quartets of black-clad widows, scarlet socialites and fluffy white starlets.

·       Amid many excellent Tamings of the Shrew, a sassy Latin-American encounter between Katherina and Petruchio.

I could go on but that offers a flavour, I hope, of the creativity this enterprise unleashes.

My parting thought is this. In my day we had school cadets, designed to build the characters of young men, at least – or was it to prepare us to become mindless fighting machines and cannon-fodder if required in future, as in the past? For my money, as a tax-payer and fellow citizen of this younger generation, destined to be somewhat at their mercy in older age as they guide the good ship Aotearoa on its continuing journey, I believe public resources invested in the activities of the Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand Inc. are a very wise investment indeed.

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