Every year, Open Minds Theatre Company in association with Inspire Rotherham put on a Youth Shakespeare Festival for children throughout South Yorkshire. In 2013, over 40 schools took part and over a thousand children were immersed in the colourful and contrasting worlds of Shakespeare’s plays. As a practitioner on the festival, I was given the task of bringing Hamlet to the stage in collaboration with an outstanding school, and a stalwart of the festival, Brinsworth Howarth.
With a hub formed of classes three, four, five and six, we explored the meaning and themes of the text, the dilemmas faced by each of the characters, and looked at the story from their perspective to see how each character mattered in their own right, and had their own story to tell.
Experimenting with techniques from physical theatre, ensemble work, stage combat and more, we devised a vibrant and active staging of the play that had as many children engaged in creating the story as possible, whether as guards, chairs, or Hamlet himself. Ideas were drawn from and inspired by the children themselves, the teaching staff, Open Minds Community Director Katharine Fletcher as well as my own vision for the play. On more than one occasion we had multiple Hamlets battling with one another or playing out the different scenarios he played through on his mind, and creating visual landscapes and scenes that in the text are only reported.
Open Minds too made a priority of their commitment to the professional development of their practitioners as we received training from theatre companies and experienced arts professionals, as well as engaging in a skill share so that the practitioners from the festival itself could share their own specialist fields of expertise.
The play was to be staged in the Octagon Theatre in the heart of Sheffield, a huge and potentially intimidating space for the children to fill, but they did it with gusto. Parents and families, friends and theatre lovers gathered to watch the play, which opened the festival.
It always comes as a relief when months of hard work are well received, but I was not fully prepared for the level of passion the response had stirred. True enough, I was ready for the stage to be graced by some of the best single performances I have seen from children of that age group, but the texts from parents started to be received by Open Minds during the play. By the time it had finished, it was clear we had achieved something special. The following are just a sample of the feedback received via text:
“Absolutely brilliant…made the hair on our arms stand on end…awesome”
“My first experience of Shakespeare ….absolutely loved it n very proud to be a parent of one of these young actors ….well done kids n thanks for letting them perform x”
“Absolutely amazing!! At such a young age you just wouldn’t imagine such stars who really made Shakespeare come alive. Well worth every minute!! Congratulations on a great night”
“Inspiring, proud, I studied Shakespeare at A level almost 15 years ago and clearly remember how difficult it was at 18 so for children of this age to take an interest is truly remarkable. Well done”
“Fantastic performance by Brinsworth Howarth. We need more of this in schools in general.”
Having seen the feedback from the rest of the performances, it is safe to say that the festival as a whole was a resounding success, and I look forward to the challenges and opportunities that next year will provide.