- The Politics of Performing Shakespeare for Young People: Standing Up to Shakespeare by Jan Wozniak
Jan Wozniak, a teaching fellow in English literature and theatre studies at the University of Leeds, admits that his book The Politics of Performing Shakespeare for Young People: Standing Up to Shakespeare is a work of the political moment. He is right. Invoking terms like social exclusion, class, and cultural hierarchy fuel fiery discussions for and against the Common Core curriculum in the United States, the UK’s EBacc, and the nature of children’s education in general. Throw into the mix the following: a de facto national imperative that British citizens must know Shakespeare to be considered educated, the French philosopher Jacques Ranciere’s ideas regarding emancipation through art, and Wozniak’s assertion that young audiences are political bodies needing agency and voice when encountering Shakespeare. Let us just say that this is not a book about neophyte actors in a van traveling to a primary school with a pipe and curtain set for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Wozniak’s book is welcome and helps fill a vacuum of fresh reflection within the world of theatre for young people.
Within his opening pages Wozniak focuses fiercely on the current highly frictional discourse about the place of arts as cultural capital. This is understandable. For more than forty years, US theatre educators have looked to Britain as a haven in which quality drama educational practices and excellent professional Theatre for Young Audiences (including Shakespeare) have flourished. But we live in interesting times. In 2016, under the current UK education secretary, Nicky Morgan, theatre as a subject did not even make the short list of EBacc recommended classes. Shakespeare now seems to be placed firmly in English class, to be studied (and tested) solely as literature. For youngsters, drama frequently is relegated to an extracurricular choice. The unthinkable has happened: Brits must now justify theatre as an educational activity.
In the UK, says Wozniak, there seems to be no argument against requiring Shakespeare in the curriculum. The delivery system? … Ay, there’s the rub. Voices within a chorus of UK politicians, educators, and theatre artists are passionate about how best to distribute the cultural capital that is Shakespeare. Against this background Wozniak argues for young people encountering Shakespeare through performance—but not just any performance. The performance must be designed with profound respect for children’s ability to authentically construct intellectual, emotional, and social meaning on their own terms.
Noteworthy is the work’s subtitle Standing Up to Shakespeare as wordplay on the title of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) (self-described) manifesto, “Standing Up for Shakespeare.” This subtitle certainly reflects the tension among educational practice, political policy, and cultural hierarchy. Wozniak challenges the quasi-official normative practices of the RSC’s Young People’s Shakespeare and London’s Shakespeare’s Globe, the two biggest providers of Shakespeare theatre for young audiences in Britain. While respectful of these entities, Wozniak is looking for spaces for [End Page 374] young people to be educationally emancipated—to respond with their own voices, to recount their own stories in response to Shakespeare, and not to be “schooled in Shakespeare.”
In chapter 2 Wozniak presents ideas about young audiences as framed by Rancière’s philosophical ideas of “emancipatory education.” He highlights the teachers-as-facilitators model: young people respected as whole human beings, not deficient adults needing to be brought up to speed. It seems very important to Wozniak that the reader understand this pedagogical logic. While he explains this philosophy quite well (especially considering Rancière’s own rather elusive way of saying what he means), it is a long way ’round; the likely reader of this book probably needs less convincing of this notion. However, the Rancière discussion does set up the ideas of theatre as a political act and young audiences as political bodies, which is essential to Wozniak’s defense of the engagement with “active and collaborative” Shakespeare (110).
After all this philosophy, the most...