The Royal Shakespeare Company has launched a new postgraduate qualification for actors as part of its mission to bring Shakespeare to young people.
Miles Richardson was delighted, if a little surprised, to become an alumni of Warwick University two months ago at the ripe old age of 44.
The RSC actor, who recently moved home from London to Stratford-upon-Avon, was the first member of the company to be awarded a postgraduate certificate in the teaching of Shakespeare.
The new qualification is the latest development in the RSC’s drive to integrate its educational work ever more closely with its core business of putting on Shakespeare’s plays – a personal crusade of artistic director Michael Boyd.
“Michael’s vision is to make the education department something integral rather than an adjunct to the company,” says Richardson, who was last seen on stage in Stratford as part of the acclaimed history cycle last year.
“He feels like that about every department in this theatre, and this award scheme was part of that.
“Originally there were only going to be two places, but because seven of us applied Michael said let’s fund all of them.”
The actors took part in five days of intensive training followed by three mentored workshops for groups of young people and a final workshop for which they were responsible for the whole process from planning through delivery to assessment.
The new certificate complements an existing one for English and drama teachers which the RSC also offers in partnership with Warwick University.
“It was a very interesting experience,” says Miles.
“I have done a lot of workshops before, but that was doing someone else’s work. What this taught me was how to create a workshop.
“You think you know about first night nerves but, believe you me, when you have 30 17 year-olds and you have to interest them in The Comedy of Errors or Measure for Measure it’s absolutely terrifying!
“What you think you know may turn out to be null and void because they have never heard of or seen Richard III in their lives, so you don’t just have to prepare a Plan A. But there is a great feeling of pleasure when a session goes well, because you may have changed someone’s life.”
Because it is not usually open to public view, the extent of the RSC’s education work can come as quite a revelation.
Through its Learning and Performance Network, launched in 2006, it currently has links with 252 primary and secondary schools – plus six special schools and two pupil reintegration units – across England.
The network consists of three “cohorts”, recruited over each of the last three years, within each of which there are 12 hub schools with an average of six further schools clustered around them.
Each cohort works with the RSC for three years, with a teacher from each of the hub schools taking a postgraduate certificate in teaching Shakespeare. Students in each region take part in a performance festival inspired by themes in Shakespeare’s plays, and some of these are invited to a festival in Stratford. The first of these took place at the end of June.
Selected students from around the country are invited to join an RSC Youth Ensemble in Stratford, which works with RSC artists over a 12-month period.
This group also acts as the RSC’s Youth Advisory Council.
“Schools can apply to become part of the network, and we are moving towards engaging with schools who might not think of themselves as having a natural connection with Shakespeare,” says Virginia Grainger, acting head of professional development in the RSC’s education department.
“In some cases they might being a deprived area, or there might be a high proportion of free school meals.”
She emphasises that the RSC’s collaborative approach to education is a natural extension of its philosophy as an ensemble company.
“We know what being an ensemble company means in terms of collaboration in the rehearsal room, and we can offer that in the classroom by collaborating with teachers,” she says.
“Actors have skills as individuals and as members of an ensemble that they can share that with a wider community.
“We’re trying to join up the skills and versatility in the company to give children a positive experience of Shakespeare, and the postgraduate award seems a very obvious way we can do that.
“It’s about creating some stepping stones for actors to be able to use their skills in another context, and of course there’s a pragmatic element to it because actors aren’t always employed.”
Once the RSC has built up a team of education-trained actors, they can be dropped into its various education programmes “like the SAS”, as Miles Richardson puts it.
His own background could hardly be further removed from that of inner-city children who might initially take some persuading that Shakespeare can enhance their lives.
As the son of the late Ian Richardson, one of the stars of the RSC in the 1960s and early 1970s, he virtually grew up in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, watching rehearsals and performances.
“There was a whole group of us that was like a gang in the theatre,” he recalls.
“Brenda Bruce’s son Sam was my generation, the theatre manager had children of our age and there were [director] David Jones’s children.
“It was a great time to be here because of course it was the golden era of the RSC from the mid-60s to mid-70s, with so many ground-breaking productions going on, some of which I watched 10 or 15 times.
“There was the Richard II in which my dad alternated the leading roles with Richard Pasco,
I saw the dress rehearsal for Peter Brook’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I remember them filming the Peter Hall version at Compton Verney.”
But when it came to school, his experience of being taught Shakespeare was no more exciting than it was for many of us.
“When we were taught we were led by the nose and told this is what is fact, this is what you need to know.
“Whereas in our workshops it’s about finding out things from what the students already know, and what they tell you about the characters and the play.”
The RSC Youth Ensemble, currently in residence in Stratford-upon-Avon, has devised a one-hour version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which will have one performance at the Courtyard Theatre on Friday August 22 at 4pm. Tickets are £2 per person or £5 for a family of four (Box office: 0844 800 1114).