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Children learning Shakespeare

Reality television, featuring children learning Shakespeare, offers an example to help us understand how such shows can entertain and educate.
British public service broadcasters have depicted Shakespeare in education settings, presenting ‘real’ people learning his works for the audience’s delectation, on several occasions. In particular, they have engaged with individuals from communities which arts policy and arts organisations denote as “hard-to-reach”, often socially or economically marginalised. The chef, restaurateur and television personality Jamie Oliver dealt with teenagers at risk of disengaging from education and training in a programme called Jamie’s Dream School (2011). In this programme, he put together a teaching staff - including an entrepreneur, a poet and an actor - to teach subjects such as economics, English and drama to a small group of struggling students. Children identified by programme-makers as “unteachables” are a favourite focus of these programmes.
This decision is predicated on assumptions about these students’ capacity for unruly, sensational behaviour and for sweeping character arcs wherein troubled teenagers become the next world famous Shakespearean actor, the future Benedict Cumberbatch. Both these features help secure the programme’s audiences, a key measure of success for programme-makers and television stations. Let’s take a particular cluster of the BBC’s reality television, featuring children learning Shakespeare, as a concrete example to help us understand how such shows meet the broadcaster’s dual imperatives of education and entertainment. In each of the programmes, Shakespeare and the television crews are welcomed by participants as vehicles for educational and personal transformation.
We’ll look at three programmes: When Romeo Met Juliet; Macbeth,
the movie star and me and Off By Heart: Shakespeare. You can read all about them on the website. Better yet, follow the links provided to watch some clips.

The video above focuses solely on examples from the BBC. However, a traditional hallmark of public service broadcasting is impartiality. Here, we acknowledge that other examples of children learning Shakespeare are available.

Channel 4’s Jamie’s Dream School unintentionally offers a rarely foregrounded insight into the ways in which both Shakespeare and the British actor Simon Callow — one of Shakespeare’s “greatest” interpreters — lack iconicity for some young people. Screened over seven weeks in March and April 2011, Jamie’s Dream School is a pedagogical experiment devised by the chef, restaurateur and TV personality Jamie Oliver to see whether using celebrity “expert” teachers and giving them both more freedom and greater resources than many schools can afford could re-engage students at risk of dropping out of education or training. The school is made up of twenty sixteen to eighteen-year olds with a handful of GCSEs between them (qualifications traditionally marking the end of formal education for those in Britain leaving school at sixteen), and a long list of difficult educational and personal circumstances.

Callow’s drama classes on Romeo and Juliet at the school involve fraught exertions to deliver the background of the play and to interest students in Shakespeare’s biography, historical context, and theatricality more generally by taking them to see his one-man-show, Shakespeare — the Man from Stratford; to teach them Shakespeare’s craftsmanship by declaiming passages at them; and to read repeatedly through scenes from Romeo and Juliet involving the warring factions (such writing is blithely assumed to be relevant to these students, despite the series presenting little evidence of gang violence in their daily lives, past or present).

Callow’s pedagogic approach, which combines the techniques that directors might use to induct professional, experienced actors into rehearsing a show (such as a whole cast read-through), with archaic teaching practices (such as reading around the class while seated), largely fails to attract, let alone to hold, the students’ attention — although he fares better when he gets them on their feet and takes them to the Globe for stage fighting classes. He also tries hard, initially, to forge personalized connections to Shakespeare for the students, asking them for their heroes, who range from Bill Gates to Katie Price, aka Jordan, the glamor model and reality television celebrity, and matching them with Shakespearean protagonists (the heavy editing, sadly, does not reveal his suggested likenesses for Gates and Price).

Despite Callow being lauded by Jamie Oliver in the programme as a “genius drama teacher”, and a few students being inspired to explore acting careers, a more skeptical reading of the series suggests that it depicts an overwhelming mismatch between Callow’s vision for his methodology and his students’ reception and experience of it.

You can read an article on the programme from the perspective of an experienced teacher of Shakespeare in UK schools, Rob Smith, in the British Shakespeare Association’s Teaching Shakespeare magazine.

You can read more about Jamie’s Dream School, as well as three other, more adult-oriented, television programmes featuring Shakespeare in an article by Sarah Olive in Borrowers and Lenders, a journal focused on Shakespeare in modern popular culture and arts.

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