All the school’s a stage thanks to this special theatrical production

All the school’s a stage thanks to this special theatrical production

27th January 2019

Pupils at Skinners’ School have just staged an exciting, engaging and extremely challenging piece of immersive theatre. Here Claire Fenton, the school’s Head of Drama and Theatre Studies tells The Times more about it . . .

Every year at Skinners’ we do a senior and junior theatre production. We try to do something completely different each time in terms of style, genre and content. This year, inspired by the work of Punchdrunk, an immersive theatre company, we decided to do a piece entitled The Rest is Silence, which is based on the framework of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

We started the planning process back in May last year, held auditions in September and started rehearsals in October and the show ran for four days earlier this month.

The piece, which boasted a cast of 22, is set in the present day and follows the struggles and strained relationships of the characters within a record company. Every person in it was taken from Shakespeare’s original Hamlet, but unlike in his play each character in The Rest is Silence is absolutely pivotal. They all have their own stories to tell and while they are all set in the same time and place, they have varying levels of interaction.

In Shakespeare’s original text some may appear in just one scene, but in our production that one scene is merely a moment in each character’s own journey. And that’s what has been really exciting on both the production and the performance side: working out who all of the characters are. It's also a story full of extremely interesting situations, and deals with issues that are all poignant to our young people.

Using the plot of Hamlet as our framework in our production was done as it needed to be a recognisable main plot to ensure the audience could follow a general sense of the play. Immersive theatre is about creating a world in which the audience can be absorbed and in this they were certainly not passive. They could walk freely through the 12 different spaces finding their own pathways and exploring the world however they saw fit.

We had reactions where people said they were ‘in awe of our vision and confidence’ putting on the production like this and others saying they’d never experienced something like this before but would now ‘look out for more immersive theatre.’

Everything in our set was purposeful, every drawer was filled with hints and evidence giving depth to the characters, every book, magazine, photograph, computer screen, phone had a purpose and contained relevant information. Scenes were set in classrooms, offices, corridors, and even the alleyway. All of which were transformed into the world of Revenge Records. The braver you are as an audience member the more you get out of it and seeing the work done by Punchdrunk has certainly taught me and my team that.

As none of the current A Level students had the opportunity to attend the 2014 Punchdrunk performance of The Drowned Man we saw, I wanted to give them a flavour of what it would feel like to experience their work and therefore I decided to create our own version, and so began the journey.

It has certainly been full of challenges, not only in terms of getting the timings right so that the piece flowed properly, but also the funding aspect and the commitment required. We have produced it on a shoestring budget and balancing rehearsals against a teaching schedule, studies and general life was difficult. But as challenging as it has been, it’s also part of what makes this piece so exciting.

A particular highlight was the collaboration demanded by the project. It was part scripted and part devised so everyone had a sense of ownership over the work. Every cast member was involved in some way with the set building or technical elements of the production too, and that has resulted in a very strong bond between cast and crew and given us a lovely sense of community. 

We have been really overwhelmed by the enthusiastic and positive feedback we have received for this production and we are very grateful to our friends, family, supporters and colleagues for joining us on this journey. We couldn't even begin to think about a project of this size without the continued support of the senior management at Skinners’. Their belief in the arts as an essential element of the curriculum and their continued support of projects beyond the curriculum are what allow us to be so adventurous. We are very lucky to be part of such an enriching school environment.

As for what it has taught our pupils I would say independence and perseverance. Everyone had to be completely committed to the project. It wasn’t enough to just turn up. They all had to be completely present at every moment. The amount of personal input each of them has had is huge. Each character has a history, a purpose and a motivation. The cast had to delve deep in order to portray characters with depth and interest.

In the rehearsal room we worked on both scripted and devised scenes. When working on the devised ones I would turn up with an outcome such as what information did the audience need to get from this, a general sense of relationship and dynamic for the characters etc. And then we would work to create the actual scene, with the students often taking the lead with this. They are a very talented bunch of young actors and have had the opportunity to really invest themselves into the work. They should be very, very proud of themselves.

I have been assisted by a very strong team which included Helen Kirk, one of our drama teachers and also our assistant director, as well as one of the school’s English teachers Harry Straw. An ex-colleague, Mike Taylor, should be thanked for taking my very poor design sketches and bringing them to life and thus creating the world in which the play exists.

Every year we are very lucky to have some very talented alumni who come back to help us with our annual productions and this year they included Tobias Cornwell, Dara Hughes, Harrison Plant  and Matt Holland. Two other former pupils we couldn't have done this without are James Dean and Jordan Wilkes who created the lighting and sound for the piece. 

The Rest is Silence has been a huge project and there have been many emotional highs and lows but I'm sure everyone will agree that every moment of it was worth it. I can't express how proud I am of everyone involved and how grateful I am for all of the support we've had.

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