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Shakespeare Schools Festival at Greenwich Theatre

Eltham Hill School - A Midsummer's Night Dream 2016
Eltham Hill School – A Midsummer’s Night Dream 2016

Families, friends, teachers and theatre lovers will pack Greenwich Theatre for four nights from Tuesday 31st October to Friday 3rd November 2017 when young actors from 16 secondary and primary schools – including seven from the home borough – perform Shakespeare’s plays.

Each night four schools will present their 30-minute abridged version of the play they have chosen for the Shakespeare Schools Festival – an annual nationwide event that this year has attracted 30,000 children from 1200 schools to 130 theatres around the country.

It’s always an incredibly inspiring and exciting festival to be a part of,” said James Haddrell, Greenwich Theatre’s artistic and executive director.

Festival facilitators work with the teachers directing the shows. Some of them are very experienced, having come from the drama sector, while some – like many of the children – will be making their debuts.

Festival regulars include the girls from Eltham Hill School, directed by Joanna Whittington, who trained in drama and education at the Central School of Speech and Drama. “While I was there I was always encouraged to take risks and not follow rules,” said Jo, “and I have applied that philosophy to my directing. I love re-editing the scripts and I hope these experiences will encourage our girls to really think about the power of theatre and how it can be used to make people think about the world we live in.

Etham Hill’s Henry V follows last year’s 80s-inspired A Midsummer Night’s Dream and previously Romeo and Juliet, Othello, The Tempest, King Lear and The Taming Of The Shrew. “I normally like to choose a play I haven’t studied before because it’s the perfect way to really get to know a new play,” said Jo, “but sometimes it’s at the girls’ request.”

Last year they really wanted to try their hand at some comedy so we chose to do another Midsummer but with a difference. Our fairies took centre stage, showing that it’s all right to take risks with Shakespeare, making it fun and playful.

This year we were inspired by Michelle Terry’s performance of Henry V at Regents Park. I knew we could do this play justice and really wanted the girls to have the opportunity to play with those magnificent lines. There are so many well-known iconic lines in this play and we are having so much fun tackling them.

We have an amazing Year 8 student playing the title role. I cannot wait to see how people react to her. She gives me goose bumps in rehearsals. The biggest challenge is the vocal performances so we are doing lots of vocal training to make sure we give those lines the power they deserve.

Each year we can normally be found having last-minute run throughs in Greenwich Park as long as it’s not raining. We often get funny looks from dog walkers, not least when our Helena and Hermia are rehearsing their fight scenes!

Jo grew up locally and attended the New Eltham Dance School from the age of three. “It gave me the opportunity to perform every year, and it was the highlight of my year. I would have loved the chance to perform in something like this. That’s why I gave myself a sneaky cameo at the end of King Lear!

As a child I was lucky enough to perform at some big local theatres, including The Orchard and Lewisham Theatre. Those memories have stayed with me and I really wanted our girls to have those experiences.

The staff at Greenwich Theatre are always lovely. It must be quite a stressful time for them, having 120 school children in the building each night, but they are very tolerant and helpful.

Some girls are super confident but some are shy and start off as part of our ensemble and graduate to bigger parts as they get older. Standing on that stage can be daunting but the confidence our girls get, having performed in that kind of environment has a huge impact on not just their performing skills but their general confidence. Friendships are formed that stretch across year groups with students from all backgrounds coming together to create something they are collectively proud of.

Eltham Hill’s Henry V will be one of four plays on the first night, October 31. “I know whatever I choose the girls will rise to the challenge. They always make me proud. On the big night you can find me in the wings surreptitiously wiping my eyes.

James Haddrell has been involved with the festival since joining Greenwich Theatre as press officer in 2001. “Children go back to school after the festival proud of what they’ve achieved,” he said after a visit to rehearsals at Eltham Hill. “It does change them. It changes their levels of confidence, the way they learn and the way they approach their work. That’s why I think schools like Eltham Hill continue to sign up year after year. The festival is an astonishing national organisation doing a fantastic job.”

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