Outback Learning: Taking up residence in Warialda

A week-long program to bring Shakespeare to life in northern New South Wales



Earlier this month, Bell Shakespeare teaching artists Caitlin Burley and Ryan Hodson travelled to northern New South Wales to deliver a week-long Artist in Residence program at Warialda High School.

Artist in Residence programs address a range of student needs including increasing literacy skills, self-confidence, self-expression, self-reflective skills, critical and creative thinking, public speaking and communication skills. Caitlin and Ryan spent the week teaching The Merchant of Venice, Othello, Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream to around 120 students, and share some of their experiences below.

The Artist in Residence program at Warialda High School was made possible through the generous support of The Scully Fund.

Caitlin: From the moment I walked into the school I was met with curious, friendly, welcoming faces from students and staff alike. Everyone was so excited and grateful to have us in the school! It was very touching.

Ryan: I had a fairly good idea of what I wanted to teach when I left Sydney, but after arriving at the school it quickly became clear that students’ abilities and attendance varied a lot. Some groups were very far ahead, which allowed for in-depth discussions. One group, where I was expecting about 10 students, only had 3 in attendance on the day. This meant we had an opportunity for an informal and personal discussion about Shakespeare. This was such a privilege as the group was very honest about not being particularly keen on Shakespeare, and our discussion meant we could examine why. We ended up having a brilliant discussion about Shakespeare’s work and its significance in our culture today.

They are obviously led by some very passionate teachers who do everything they can to make the text more relatable for them.

Caitlin: Some of the older advanced English classes absolutely blew us away with their knowledge and interest in the texts they were studying. They are obviously led by some very passionate teachers who do everything they can to make the text more relatable for them.

Ryan: One student that really stood out was a Year 12 student who was very passionate about Shakespeare and Drama. They knew so much already but always took an opportunity to discuss more or dive deeper. As it’s quite a small school, they hadn’t had Drama offered as a subject for their year, but they didn’t let that stop them! One day in particular stands out; I was teaching a class and this same student came in on their study break just to watch and participate, and even help some of the students in my class.

I was teaching a class and one particular student came in on their study break just to watch and participate, and even help some of the other students in my class.

Caitlin: Our focus was to get the students engaged physically with the text, up on their feet, exploring the text and themes of Shakespeare’s plays through movement. We wanted each student to come away from the sessions feeling empowered to investigate and question Shakespeare’s texts, and to share their ideas.

We started with a quick game of ‘Knife and Fork’ to show the students how they can easily and instinctively communicate ideas by using their bodies to create different frozen shapes and images. This prepped us to start exploring Hamlet’s first soliloquy, “O, that this too too solid flesh would melt…” (Act 1, Scene 2) with an Image Garden. An Image Garden is a really great way to break down a text into key images and ideas and externalise a character’s inner turmoil. In this case Hamlet wrestling with the corruptness in the world and the haste in which his mother remarried after his father's death.

We then asked one student to volunteer to be Hamlet and read the speech. The student who volunteered said he wasn’t very good at reading but did an incredible job of sight reading and walking around the space to each group of images as he referred to it. The students who were his images could all really seeing how active and alive the text was, just from watching their friend have to dart back and forth across the room as Hamlet wrestles with these opposing ideas.

Ryan: Something that will really stick with me is a group of students, who’d started off fairly closed-off and quiet, coming up to me at the end of the program to shake my hand and say "thank you." It meant a lot to have them thank me personally.

This residency has reinforced my belief that teachers are some of the most valuable people in our lives.

Caitlin: I think this residency had a profoundly positive impact on students and teachers alike. I know for sure that the students who were already engaged with Shakespeare were overjoyed to have professional actors to work with and share their enthusiasm, interest, and questions. By praising their early tentative efforts we were able to empower and encourage them to really come out of their shells and gain confidence in their self expression and engagement with the text.

For the students who knew very little about Shakespeare, this was a brilliant introduction. I think that when they study his texts in the future they will remember that Shakespeare’s plays are a blueprint that needs their input, imagination and experiences to come to life.

As the week progressed we were blown away by all the students' improvement and engagement in creative self expression. These were students who at the beginning of the week had no experience of drama, but were able to step outside their comfort zones and explore new possibilities of expression and communication.

Ryan: This residency has reinforced my belief that teachers are some of the most valuable people in our lives. Seeing the teachers at the school working hard to help the students and actively seeking to connect with them, however they could, was very special. They were always trying to make the most of our time and their efforts were so clearly reflected in the students' behaviour and knowledge. Assisting teachers and giving them tools to teach further when we can’t be in the room is incredibly valuable.

Caitlin first came to work with Bell Shakespeare in 2018, when she played the part of Juliet in our education season of Romeo and Juliet at Sydney Opera House and Arts Centre Melbourne.

In 2020 and 2021, both Caitlin and Ryan toured nationally with Bell Shakespeare’s The Players, bringing Shakespeare to life in schools across Australia. They have both since joined our education team as teaching artists, and regularly deliver workshops, seminars and residencies to schools.

To find out how Bell Shakespeare's Artist in Residence program could transform learning at your school, follow this link or complete an Expression of Interest.

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