Jo Bloom is Head of Education Development at the Australian Shakespeare Company. She speaks to Australian Stage's Heather Bloom about the joys and challenges of teaching Shakespeare to young people.
Can you tell me a little about the Australian Shakespeare Company?
It started 34 years ago by the unwavering pioneer, Glenn Elston. Best known for their open air Shakespeare productions in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne and Sydney the company also produces family classics such as The Wind in the Willows, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and many others. The company performs and tours from regional cities, to remote and outback settings and indoor productions across Australia and recently in the UK. The education program began 11 years ago and extends the company vision to develop exciting, contemporary theatre produced the way Shakespeare intended; unshackled from traditional constraints, accessible and above all entertaining for everyone.
What are the workshops that are running these school holidays?
These school holidays in Melbourne and Sydney we are running “Hamming up Hamlet” a workshop designed to bring out and create comedy from the tragedy. In Hamlet, Shakespeare said it himself “Nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” And isn’t that true?! So we will find the silly bits and the fun and also turn a lot of it on its head.
What can the students expect from the workshops?
Laughter, new friends, learning the craft of acting and storytelling, understanding Shakespeare’s language, finding their voice, playing with music, having fun creating characters and re-writing things in their own words and building their confidence. On the Saturday, we invite parents and friends along to a showcase to share what we have created.
Who are they suitable for?
Everyone! All ages and stages are welcome. Whether students have played with us before, know a lot or nothing about Shakespeare – our teachers are very experienced Actors, Teachers and Directors with the company so they really know how to bring out the best in these young people. The first week is for Primary ages and the second week is for Secondary ages. It’s very accessible so students can join us for a day or two or the whole week.
Shakespearean language is unique and sometimes rather tricky, is this ever an issue for the students?
It always is at the start. Every time. It’s a barrier. Which is partly why the work is so rewarding. When they really ‘get it’ and settle into it and own it…it’s magic. The language is big and bold and colourful and I see it as a gift. We work a lot on making sure they understand the language, and we are playful with it. We’ve created games specifically for that purpose. They embody it and it becomes a joyful experience. When they really understand the story and the characters, it all starts to flow and becomes fun and wonderfully expressive.
Does ASC run any other educational programs?
So many! Across Sydney and Melbourne we run performance opportunities for young people. With our Sydney Youth Players program for ages 12+ we are working on a full scale production – opening Macbeth next month in Willoughby, and for 18+ in Melbourne they are about to start a full production of As You Like It. It’s incredible what is achieved by these young actors who audition from across the state to be involved. In Sydney we also run weekly drama classes for Primary ages and every school holidays in both States we have workshops on offer. We also offer incursions across 8 different plays touring across both States supporting students with their studies of these plays. These have been developed with the specific State curriculum in mind so students get a highly relevant experience of that play relating to their unit module.
Why do you think Shakespeare’s works have remained universally popular more than 400 years after they were written?
I think it’s because humanity has remained unchanged. Back then, he wrote for the people and about the people and created such multi-faceted characters that they still speak to us today. We see reflections of ourselves in these characters and of human nature. The plays demand a strong interpretation in the way they are realised so it’s an invitation for us to find our modern voice with each piece. It seems today, in many cultures language and expression has been reduced, but Shakespeare’s poetry, beauty and mastery of language calls and speaks to the hearts and minds of audiences and performers of all ages pushing us to step up.
What is your favourite Shakespearean play and why?
I find that impossible to answer! I would have to say Hamlet because there are many questions left unanswered and that challenges us to answer them for ourselves. I find it timeless, real, raw and psychological. I’m really looking forward to being playful with it these school holidays and seeing what young minds bring to it.