Responsibility Part Two: Shakespeare with Kids

Friday 10 June

I was 19 when I went to drama school.  I had a silver metal pencil-case with a Shakespeare quote on it – the letters of which I’d stuck on myself in ‘black gothic’ font.  “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.”  Man I thought I was so cool.  Lifted from my favourite play – Hamlet – I actually painted the prose in its entirety around the cornice of my 2nd year apartment room in blue paint.  How I ever got laid is beyond me.  My pride and joy was a selection of Royal Shakespeare Company T-shirts.  I bought dad one for Christmas one year: “Although I may look old, yet I am strong and lusty.”  I think he wore it once.  I bled the Bard.  Other people thought I was a wanker.

Break from rehearsals during pantomime at drama school circa 2001.  I've still got that staff somewhere

Break from rehearsals during pantomime at drama school circa 2001. I’ve still got that staff somewhere

'The Don' - playing a police officer self-financing his own sex change operation by pimping kids to the titular character.  Probably not a good idea to include it in this post...

‘The Don’ – playing a police officer self-financing his own sex change operation by pimping kids to the titular character. Probably not a good idea to include it in this post…I’ve got nice female legs though

Trouble was I wasn’t any good.  Even if you have deeply ingrained passion for something you can still be naff at it.  This hurt me greatly, as I understood the texts backwards, could feel and hear and read how it should be acted and spoken, but just couldn’t quite ever lift it off the page.  At least without producing more wood than a branch of IKEA.   Sure I stumbled through a couple of seasons of outdoor Shakespeare to a decent response, including my greatest (and only) ever mention in a newspaper review for my performance as Malcolm in Macbeth :

“Stuart Jameson provides a welcome change of pace in a cast that otherwise has a tendency to shout.”

       The Scottish Herald, July 2004

Funny how I’ve never forgotten that verbatim isn’t it?  What a glowing testament to my acting talents – because I was quieter than everyone else.  Hold the front page Hollywood – I’m coming.  They’re going to be throwing deals at me.

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Apologies for the appalling quality of these photos – most are pictures of pictures or scanned in. One of my first outdoor Shakespeares. The Soothsayer from Antony and Cleopatra. I wasn’t allowed into a club after because of the skin head and snake “tattoo” – they thought I’d cause trouble

As Lysander in A Midsummer Night's Dream.  The four lovers in that production had about as much chemistry as a rose dating a fart

As Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The four lovers in that production had about as much chemistry as a rose dating a fart

But it was to no avail and never to last.  I had an agent wanting me to move to London – and it might have worked out barring the slight complication that there’s no way come hell or high water I want to ever live in that overpopulated cess pit.  I kept plying my trade north of the border with maybe one decent role a year, and the rest of the time pushing cold-call sales of broadband to old people, being the murderer at murder mystery dinner parties, dressing up in a furry seal costume or getting drugs tested on me for money.  I was living the dream.

Probably my finest work.  Somerset Maugham's beautiful play -  Enemy.  Still out-acted by the tank

Probably my finest work. Somerset Maugham’s beautiful play – Enemy. Still out-acted by the tank

And so I gave it up.  This was also quite possibly because of a girl too, who basically forced upon me an oft shouty ultimatum of choosing her and a proper job over the life of a penniless, struggling actor.  Ironic considering we met in the theatre – she directed a play I was trying to use as a platform for more exposure.

God bothering - playing Canterbury in a WWI set Henry V.  A production that garnered wonderful reviews

God bothering – playing Canterbury in a WWI set Henry V. A production that garnered wonderful reviews

I digress.  So I left creeping the boards behind and the rest, as they say, is history.  But I do fondly remember a moment towards the end of my last flirtation with thespianism, when I led a stage combat and Shakespeare workshop with a load of disadvantaged street kids in Glasgow.  One stocky hard nut approached me afterwards, sporting a Burberry baseball cap, heavy gold chain, Kappa tracksuit bottoms tucked into his trainers, and a face like a pizza. (In Scotland we call them NEDS – Non Educated Delinquents).  He opens up with a thick Glaswegian brogue:

“Dinnae fuckin’ say onythin’ pal aww riight?!  RIIGHT!! (Lowers voice) – but kin ye tell meh whair I kin git mair o’ this stuff?!”

He gestures to the Shakespeare quotes I’d been using to help set up the kids’ fight scenes.  I reached into my pocket and gave him my tiny copy of Hamlet.

“You can start there.”

He hid it as quickly as I brought it to air and turned just before departing at the door, jabbing a sovereign ringed finger in my direction:

“Amm serious!  Dinnae fuckin’ say onythin’!”

I’d like to say a single tear of joy cascaded down my cheek – rather a little trickle of poo down my leg.  I was considerably more concerned for my own safety and wellbeing.  Regardless, I began to believe my calling was elsewhere.

Early rehearsals

First rehearsal – Mercutio and Tybalt fight scene

Fast forward to present day Bishkek and I find myself leading a similar workshop and nurturing a long forgotten passion for theatre in education.  I’ve not done this kind of thing for maybe fifteen years, and I’m extremely nervous and very concerned they’re going to tear me apart, and I’ll be fed to the snow leopards following the next PTA meeting.  But it goes rather well, and to cut a long story short, I’m suddenly suggesting – and then in turn directing – the QSIB international school drama club in their end of year performance.  I offer that a Shakespeare showcase could potentially go down well, and subsequently  The Bard in Bishkek is born.

From the program notes.  The directors.  That's me on the left

From the program notes. The directors. That’s me on the left

So myself and partner in crime/primary teacher extraordinaire Alex choose scenes from some of Billy’s most beloved works.  I’m admittedly a little hesitant that 11 year olds (including non-native English speakers) are going to be able to not only grasp the language but learn lines and have the ability to perform it as well.  What is the old acting adage?  Never work with children or animals.  Or Ron Jeremy.  Pride was getting in my way – I was concerned we’d be left with egg on our faces resulting from a shambolic, poorly rehearsed production.  The kind that parents are forced to watch and squirm through because their loin fruit has one line at the end of act three, and looks cute with a set of angel wings and a tinsel halo.  I couldn’t have been proved more wrong.

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Something wicked this way comes…rehearsing the witches

"The raging rocks, and shivering shocks..."  Bottom channels Olivier

“The raging rocks, and shivering shocks…” Bottom channels Olivier in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

"Good king of cats - nothing but one of your nine lives..."  Mercutio squares up to Tybalt

“Good king of cats – nothing but one of your nine lives…” Mercutio squares up to Tybalt

Worshipping Helena

Worshipping Helena

To continue – we select scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth; and during early rehearsals, we were still undecided how to put the production on.  Standard practice is to just throw up a raised platform, and ruin the audience’s bum bones on those wooden school gym benches.  However such was the talent beginning to shine, I didn’t want it to go to waste with the usual “them and us” staging.  Then memory served well – most of my al fresco Shakespeare days were done in promenade – where the audience moves to the action.  We’d turn the school into a living, breathing Shakespeare set.  The Gazebo would be the meeting-house for the Mechanicals.  The basketball court would see a lunchtime playground face-off between Mercutio and Tybalt at Verona High.  The cafeteria blacked out to become Macbeth’s gloomy and atmospheric candle-lit castle.  Turn and look up to see Juliet at her balcony window.  The garden magically becoming the enchanted forest in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  It was perfect, and the kids couldn’t have been more excited.

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Dress rehearsal

Performance

Performance

"Oh Romeo...Romeo...wherefore art thou Romeo..."

“Oh Romeo…Romeo…wherefore art thou Romeo…”

I love these shots - taken weeks apart.  Rehearsal and performance of the lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream

I love these shots – taken weeks apart. Rehearsal and performance of the lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

And then boy did they pull it off.  Although we selected “entry-level” Shakespeare, to the uninitiated it still isn’t easy.  Hell many adults and professional actors still can’t get their head around it – to the point where I almost believe you either get it or you don’t.  Well these kids got it.  They didn’t just get it – they nailed it within an inch of its life – to the point where even having rehearsed and directed them for the previous couple of months, both myself and Alex felt we weren’t watching kids anymore – they became their characters.  I’ve seen productions where the standard of acting isn’t half as good.  They raised their game, they’ve got the world at their feet, and we are so proud of them.  Their parents should be too.

And so here it is!  For your listening and viewing pleasure, by the miracle of technology – the full (edited) Bard in Bishkek performance.  Unless I’ve screwed it up because I’ve never posted a video before.  This was taken from the opening night – so it was a little rough around the edges – but we were still glowing with appreciation for the hard work and effort our cast put in.  It felt like a family.

The full cast

The full cast

The poster - designed by our 11 year old Lady Macbeth - a future thespian and/or tattoo artist

The poster – designed by our 11 year old Lady Macbeth – a future thespian and/or tattoo artist

The newspaper article, program and ticket stubs

The newspaper article, program and ticket stubs

Having a lovely piece written about the whole process and included in the brand new (and only) English language paper here – Voice of Ala-Too Gazette – was just the icing on the cake.  Either way, this kind of production has never been done here before and it was certainly newsworthy.  We had a wonderful turn out, and – dare I say it – there’s whisperings of making it an annual thing.  The spring 2017, QSIB, Bard in Bishkek repertoire.  I believe with these kids (and with many more that are now interested having witnessed their peers knock it out the park) it could go from strength to strength.  Maybe reaching out to other international schools?  Maybe involving the wider community?  Maybe putting together a full-scale Shakespeare production?  The possibilities are endless.  It would be incredible to have been a part of starting something like that.  I guess being responsible has its merits.  Perhaps I have better things to offer than just my  chat from behind a pint glass.

“We know what we are, but know not what we may be.”

A selection of photographs over the course of the production. The beautiful black and whites are credited to Tomas Georgievski – one of the proud parents.

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