Feature of the Week

February 19, 2012 11:53 pm

Much ado about Shakespeare

Business schools do not always act on their own advice, but Warwick Business School in the UK is now diversifying, being entrepreneurial and tapping into its creativity, all at the same time.

It is using its established online technology to help high-school teachers learn how to interpret Shakespeare’s plays through a partnership with another local not-for-profit: the Royal Shakespeare Company.

From September, teachers of English literature from San Francisco to Sydney will be able to study how to teach the Bard’s work through an online network set up by the RSC education unit in Stratford-upon-Avon, 15 miles from Warwick. “It gives the RSC the ability to reach out to literature teachers around the world,” says dean Mark Taylor.

A few years ago it was all the rage for MBA courses to extract themes from Shakespeare’s plays to highlight specific management styles – teaching leadership through Henry V’s “Once more unto the breach, dear friends” speech was deemed just the thing for re-energising flagging troops, both military and corporate. But in this instance, the business school’s role is all about the technology, which has proved its efficacy in the online version of the Warwick MBA, which has 2,500 enrolled students.

Most importantly for the RSC, the technology helps them achieve scale, says Jacqui O’Hanlon, director of education at the RSC. “It means we can enable more people to have access to the work we do. [Reaching scale] is a conundrum for [all] the creative world.”

Today the RSC runs face-to-face courses for 25 teachers at a time in one of its rehearsal rooms. Within three years the new partnership plans for 1,000 teachers a year to be trained using the online programme. Prof Taylor is confident: “I think that’s a really conservative estimate”. And with 64m students around the world studying Shakespeare, the attraction of the partnership is easy to see.

In the face-to-face classes, teachers work with RSC actors and instructors to explore the active strategies they can use in the classroom. The teaching is based on what happens in those same rehearsal rooms when actors are working on a production, says Ms O’Hanlon.

“What you get is a group of people who know that play. They have the knowledge in their bones and they take that into the classroom.”

Although Ms O’Hanlon has become a convert to the online platform during the 18 months of discussions about the courses, she says there are still more things they need to explore. However, the RSC has already recorded 30 hours of creative practice on film, which will form the heart of the entry-level course.

“You have to work with the text to bring it alive. It takes a lot of highly creative approaches to the text, which breathe life into it.”

The chosen text for the first course is Romeo and Juliet, one of Shakespeare’s most popular classroom plays. Tutors then work with individuals and groups online to apply the principles of teaching and learning to a fresh text. The problem, says Ms O’Hanlon, is to ensure that Shakespeare’s works feel alive and current. “It’s not like teaching a novel. It’s not Dickens.”

Initial short courses will cost from £850, but teachers can take longer courses, even masters degrees, which take up to four years to complete and are awarded by Warwick University. Although the partnership between the university and the theatre company is for-profit, programmes are priced to cover costs rather than make a huge surplus.

. . .

Discussions are under way to involve Warwick MBA students in the project, says Jonothan Neelands, chair of creative education at WBS.

“The need for creativity is as great in business as it is in artistry,” he argues. “We thought it [the RSC project] would be a living example of what the business school stood for. It’s a positive response to the times we live in.”

As for Prof Taylor, the relationship with the RSC is personal as well as professional. While a visiting scholar at the International Monetary Fund, Prof Taylor, an economist, studied for a part-time masters degree in English, focusing on Shakespeare’s little-performed play King John. Indeed, the dissertation he wrote on the staging of the work has become the benchmark on the subject and referenced by the RSC.

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