Monthly Archives: November 2009

Spotlight: Melanie Whitehead, Royal Shakespeare Company’s Learning Department Manager

Melanie WhiteheadMelanie is the Learning Department Manager for the Royal Shakespeare Company. In March 2008 Stand up for Shakespeare was launched in schools, it aims to get young people acting Shakespeare, seeing it live, and starting it earlier. 


What is the biggest obstacle in getting young people into Shakespeare?

A lot of the work we do is about raising aspirations. There’s this assumption that Shakespeare is hard, and if you can understand Shakespeare then you’re good. In some ways it works in our favour, as we know we can get young people to enjoy it, celebrate it, and play the characters. Sometimes you just want to forget all the assumptions though, so it’s good to work with younger people as they don’t have that perception and they don’t have the weight of their parent’s perceptions. 


Why do you think Stand up for Shakespeare has been successful in schools? 

With the campaign we heard lots of different views and lots of high profile people have supported it. I think there’s always a debate around whether it’s just celebrating this dead white guy who is speaking this impenetrable language and hasn’t been around for four hundred years, therefore we should get him off of our curriculums and be studying current influences today. Scholars debate this all the time and for me it comes back to the way he presents a human that is cross-cultural. It’s not about “I feel like this because this is my cultural understanding”, it’s about “I feel like this because I’m a human being and in this situation”, and that is understandable from wherever you are. 


In Stand up for Shakespeare you encourage students to see Shakespeare live so they have positive early experiences. What early theatre experience had an impact on you? 

I was quite lucky to be introduced to Shakespeare in a non-threatening way, I had a few inspirational teachers who approached Shakespeare in a stealth way and I was my mum’s theatre partner. I remember the first time I walked into the Swan theatre and it feeling very intimate and sacred, but it also felt casual that you were being embraced into this sanctum space. It wasn’t Shakespeare I saw, it was Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, and that was my moment of going “wow, live theatre rocks.” 


How can the Royal Shakespeare Company attract a more young and diverse audience?

We work with schools and within schools we have a complete cross section of society. And part of our work is making sure we engage with culturally diverse schools because it is about those first experiences, if young people can get used to being in the theatre and having a good experience of Shakespeare then that will hopefully last. I think in terms of our statistics it’s increasing, we are doing better than we used to do at attracting new audiences. Part of the Complete Works Festival was about expanding that repertoire, for example, Dash Art’s Indian Dream and South Africa’s The Tempest, those kind of productions were about going, you know what there are people all over the world doing Shakespeare and it isn’t about white middle-class people from Stratford. In fact it was astounding for seeing that diversity of performances and I would never have said an all-white set of Titus Andronicus in Japanese would have been one of my favourite performances from the festival, but it absolutely was because it was beautiful and very well done.


The National Theatre and Royal Opera House have been transmitting live cinema broadcasts of drama, opera, and dance.  Do you think this helps or hinders getting people into theatre? 

It’s a really interesting debate, Michael Boyd was recently misquoted saying something like the National’s production of Phedre is a different medium; it’s a two-dimensional medium as opposed to a three-dimensional world. He was on the phone to Nick Hytner [artistic director of the National Theatre] in moments saying he didn’t say that. What we’re used to seeing on our screens are close ups, visually spectacular things, special effects and you don’t get that in the theatre; your eyes do the panning in and out for you. It’s difficult as what works in theatre doesn’t always translate into film, having said that we’re constantly asked to do film versions of our productions and have just done a film version of David Tennant’s Hamlet. I think cinema are losing their audiences and doing as many things they possibly can to get more people in; as we now have giant screens in our homes they now have 3D cinema and all those other gimmicks. Obviously for me there is no better experience than a live experience, however, getting people to understand how theatre works and seeing it will hopefully lead people through the doors.

What Fatima Did…, at the Hampstead Theatre

What Fatima Did

stand back, i've got a hijab in my pocket

How do you get young people into the theatre? By writing about them, as Atiha Sen-Gupta from the school of Skins writers proves with this topical debut. In this teen world of dub-step, drinking, and dressing up, Fatima decides to don the hijab, a decision that makes those close to her question why.

The play has an intimate set-up moving from the classroom to the girl’s toilets, focusing on six best friends, and one close family. Fatima never actually appears onstage, like Deepa in Anupama Chandrasekhar’s Free Outgoing, instead we only learn about her through other characters.  The device is the crux of the play: you want to see her answer questions, stand up for her actions, and in her actual hijab. Instead it’s up to us, the non-hijab wearing audience (like her friends), who are forced to question our own assumptions.

The feminist Sen-Gupta says on the hijab: “it makes you visible as a Muslim, but invisible as a woman.” Her arguments are not new, they are just presented in a fresh way; rather than having stuffy academics sitting on a panel discussing the issue, we have at the pinnacle of the play a classroom debate by a group of multi-racial friends.

Every argument about the hijab is put forward and often from the most unlikely candidates. Fatima’s Caribbean school friend Craig admires her modesty, whilst her mum says her daughter has become a “fundamentalist postbox.” The mum points out: “my grandmother fought for my mother, and my mother fought for me not to wear it.” In a society where young girls are the chief buyers and wearers of headscarves rather than their mums, this addresses the main subject at the heart of the play: how are things different, if not more difficult post-9/11, for second generation Asians?

The in-your-face cast are excellent at portraying the chaos and confusion, in particular Fatima’s family, Asher Ali as Mohammed and Shobu Kapoor as the mum. At times the humour is cringeworthy, Fatima’s ex-boyfriend’s desperation repetitive, and the denouement slow. Despite this it is absorbing, and the audience who were half full of hijab wearers gasping, laughing, and on the edge of their seats seemed to think so too. Theatre at its best.

Runs till 7 November.

To see or not to see: * * * *