Living with the arts

Published : Jul 16, 2004 00:00 IST

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon, where the plays of the Royal Shakespeare Company are held. - THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon, where the plays of the Royal Shakespeare Company are held. - THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Indian artists and art institutions could perhaps learn a few lessons from the Royal Shakespeare Company's efforts in educating audiences.

NOT so long ago, my wife and I spent a week in Stratford-upon-Avon, and saw two plays presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) - Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet. Not very different from what many visitors to that exquisitely beautiful town would do, you might say, which is true. Except that by going to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre one got to know a good deal about what they did besides presenting plays by a company of gifted actors, directors, and experts in the fields of lighting, sound, costume, stage design and management.

The RSC has a unique programme called Day Schools, which includes a workshop every morning led by the RSC education team with members of the cast and company, a ticket to a matinee performance, and a post-show discussion with members of the cast and company.

The workshops cover a variety of subjects. One titled "Directing Shakespeare", for example, was centred round that day's performance, Macbeth, and focussed on how the actors and the director collaborate in bringing a text to the stage. It highlights the process of how a director creates an ensemble approach in the creative task of rehearsing a play. Another programme centred round the presentation of Romeo and Juliet identified the choices that a creative team can make - choices that enable the play to speak to present-day audiences. The workshops centring on later productions - Hamlet and King Lear - were to look at how a coherent visual world is created for a play, the vital role that design plays in bringing a play to life, and what techniques can be used to present a complex play on stage with multiple story lines, as clearly as possible.

Apart from the Day Schools, the RSC had a special programme called Family Day, which was centred round a performance of Romeo and Juliet. It was aimed at young audiences in the 9-13 age group. This included an event in which the story and the language were introduced, with a chance for audiences to talk to and ask questions of the cast, after the performance. The young people, who needed to be accompanied by an adult also saw the play being performed.

Both the performances we went to had a large number of children watching them. Initially this was, quite frankly, a little unnerving because one had visions of constant chatter and giggling during the plays. But no, nothing of the kind happened. There was pin-drop silence, and I could not help looking at the children to see just what they were doing: they were quite obviously fascinated and enthralled. I did not think they would have been terribly concerned about the actors and the reputation of the RSC - these are not issues that would interest children. What compelled their attention were the story and the dramatic developments on stage.

MY aim in mentioning all these details is to highlight the kind of attention that is being paid by a group as renowned as the RSC - which travels for several months to various international venues - to a specific purpose. It is nothing so superficial as "exposing people, especially our young, to our great cultural heritage". It is more a process of demystifying Shakespeare's plays (which tend to become depressingly dead once they are taught in schools), and present them as a live, dynamic and fascinating form of communication.

That, in fact, is what theatre ultimately is - a process of communication, as all arts are - and the events organised by the RSC give an added dimension to audiences watching the plays and responding to them. It is not very different from what Beyonce Knowles or Britney Spears do; only they use different modes of communication and seek specific responses. The programmes of the RSC and their plays seek responses that are in some ways the same but are wider and deeper; nonetheless it needs to be emphasised that in essence the responses are similar. Had this not been the case, the children watching the plays would have begun to fidget after about half an hour. But not only did they remain silent, they also responded to the drama they were watching. One has seen enough theatre to recognise their attentiveness.

How does all this, then translate in societal terms? This is, to my mind, not a relevant, or indeed a very interesting question as far as this discussion is concerned. What is important, what is relevant, what constitutes the focus, is the programmes and the processes themselves. It is what the RSC is doing as a whole - through its Day Schools, its Family Days, and the presentation of the plays themselves. Somebody is doing something worthwhile; not because there is a lot of money to be made - I doubt if the RSC makes any money on this at all - and not because they are paid to do it by the Arts Council or a similar body. Then it would be a chore, to be got through one way or the other. Since it happens from within the RSC, there is a collective commitment to the process that is very evident.

One can say that they are doing all this because they are investing in future, larger audiences. It is a rather fanciful thought, but even if there is some truth in it, what is wrong with doing that? If some years down the line there are more people eager to see - and relate to - Shakespeare's plays, then so much the better. Not only for the Royal Shakespeare Company, but also for British theatre in general.

WHICH brings us inevitably to the issue that must be addressed now. What, if anything of this sort is being done in this country? The answer is `nothing'. Yes, we have small initiatives in different places but have any of our major arts institutions - and goodness knows we have very few of them - worked out some consistent plan to bridge the gulf between the arts and the people? Is it possible, to put it in practical terms, for theatre artists or classical dancers or other practitioners of the performing arts to earn a comfortable, and in some cases more than comfortable, living, without seeking the money that television or the more common entertainment can provide? The answer encapsulates the perils that the arts face here, and the sad fact that nothing is being done about it. All we can do is watch the activities of organisations such as the RSC and admire their commitment to their art form. Our own world is so ridden with petty jealousies and cliques with fixed unchangeable ideas about what constitutes art and its interpretation by some academics in a jargon they have invented that obscures instead of clarifying, that it will be generations before we see a radical change, before we can see something emerge on the pattern of what the RSC is doing with Shakespeare's plays, in the exquisitely beautiful town of Stratford.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment