Louise Allain, 6th December 2013
So 13 years on, 1,000 schools productions in 13 theatres, rising to 1,500 schools next year, and 50,000 performers from 2015 - it's safe to say, 'Action is eloquence' (Shakespeare's Coriolanus).
It always impresses me that my Mother quotes Shakespeare, which she says she recalls from school days, my Mother left school at 13 years of age. I was handed a copy of Macbeth to start studying for my English GCSE, it became synonymous I'm afraid with the negativity of exams.
So when I was first told about Christopher Grace and Penelope Middleboe's extraordinary idea of the Shakespeare Schools Festival, I couldn't help feeling resentful at a missed opportunity!
In 2000 Chris and Penelope, were Executive Producer and Series Editor of S4C's Shakespeare: The Animated Tales. The series went down very well with young audiences and based on this reaction, the pair brought together a unique combination of specially adapted scripts and resources to make Shakespeare accessible to today's youngsters - the Shakespeare Schools Festival was born.
It began initially with eight schools from Pembrokeshire who performed over two sell out-audiences at The Torch Theatre, in Milford Haven. Based on this success and how well received the idea had been in Pembrokeshire, Shakespeare Schools Festival (SSF) became an annual event in the region. Since that time SSF haven't looked back, and having rolled out the scheme to other parts of the UK they then took the enormous step in 2007 to hold performances on a national level across the country simultaneously.
Early on in it's history, Cherie Blair, at that time resident in Downing Street as Prime Minster's wife, was a willing supporter of the concept of Shakespeare Schools Festival, and her daughter Kathryn was one of the first to take part in their wonderful productions with The Sacred Heart School, Hammersmith. Cherie has been a longstanding patron of the charity over the years.
It was thanks to Cherie's enthusiasm that, in 2003, First Lady, Laura Bush, in town with the President to see Cherie's, Prime Minister husband, Tony Blair - was presented with abridged scenes from A Midsummer Night's Dream, Richard III and Macbeth, by proud youngsters getting through a tough fought competition, to perform at this prestigious venue, to such a special audience. Doubtless the conversation nearby between George Bush and Tony Blair, did not match the political slander, skullduggery and witchcraft that ensued with the SSF shows!
'What a great way of bringing the bard into your class!' , encourages the British Council's school's online twitter account. In fact twitter is full of schools, colleges, parents and friends enthusing about the amazing productions of King Lear or The Tempest that they've seen; and job vacancies and venue information posted, proves that SSF is now, in 2013, an established company with charity status. A success.
In twelve months alone, the company have gone from 700 schools to 2,000, and 50,000 pupils - Years 4 (9 years old) to Year 13 (18 years old), performing in 130 theatres from 2015. - it's safe to say, 'Action is eloquence' (Shakespeare's Coriolanus).
Shakespeare Schools Festival also helped make the BBC's 'Off by Heart' competition last year possible by facilitating workshops and auditions in 9 centres all over the UK for the 2,000 entrants. Judges then chose 9 pupils from each region for SSF founder, Christopher Grace, to single down to one pupil per area, to go on and represent that region. So in the end 9 entrants from out of the 2,000 hopefuls, then went through to the final at the RSC in Stratford. They were given the chance of a lifetime to perform Shakespeare's famous speeches in front of a panel of judges such as historian, Simon Schama and actor Samuel West.
"To bring the enchantment of Shakespeare to thousands of children in hundreds of schools - there’s no more valuable process in the whole of education", enthuses writer and SSF patron, Philip Pullman and the Guardian's columnist Polly Toynbee has been quoted as calling SSF 'a brilliant project' and adds in an article she writes about teaching methods under the current government, 'Drama should be the right of every child.'
Numbering among its patrons those such as Ralph Fiennes, Dame Judy Dench and Harriet Walter who are seasoned Shakespearian actors themselves, all stress the importance of encountering Shakespeare's work at a young age.
What resonated so much from reading about the work of the Shakespeare Schools Festival was founder Chris Graces's recent write-up on the SSF website - as he describes all the places he visited in the recent weeks, 12 theatres, 46 productions, watching thousands of articulate, talented young people he remarks about a return to Milford Haven, where SSF had their incarnation -
"One of the pupils performing in 2000 is now a teacher directing her own play at The Torch!" I think that more than anything reveals the inspiration of this "imaginative charity" (SSF Patron, Ralph Fiennes).
With 2014 being the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth, SSF plan to donate even more funds to ensure that they treble the number of schools that they currently reach in the United Kingdom. Both Chris Grace and Penelope Middlelboe want to ensure that their fantastic, educational work reaches thousands more school children, so they too get a chance to stage their own version of the Bard's time honoured works and immerse themselves in a world of mellifluous language, scheming protagonists , ruthless villains and memorable courtships.