The mad, magical world of A Midsummer Night's Dream: Your 5-minute guide
5 Feb 2024
Geoff De Manser is a previous Regional Teacher Mentorship participant and secondary teacher at Mortlake College in Mortlake, Victoria. Father to 2020 John Bell Scholarship winner Taine De Manser, we caught up with him to see how Shakespeare is relevant to his work, his family and his community in Mortlake.
Give us a snapshot of your school and community. How long have you been teaching there?
Mortlake College is a regional school with 180 students in a town with a population of 1400 people. Our nearest regional city is Warrnambool 50km to the south, we have Geelong 150km east and we are 230km from Melbourne.
I have been teaching at Mortlake College for 24 years. I began my teaching journey as a Year 5/6 teacher and over the years morphed into a secondary teacher including taking on the role of VCE Drama and Theatre Studies. I was well supported by colleagues and also through Drama Victoria.
We have worked hard to develop a performing arts culture in Mortlake which isn’t easy in a cropping / farming belt where football / netball and cricket dominate the local options.
I was so fortunate to gain a spot on Bell Shakespeare's Regional Teacher Mentorship program in 2021 and used this to develop my confidence and experience in working with Shakespeare.
My son, Taine, was also very fortunate to be selected as one of the John Bell Scholarship recipients in the same year. Shakespeare smiled upon our regional school and also my family.
What do you love about teaching Shakespeare?
I love seeing students of all ages come to understand, appreciate and engage with the words of Shakespeare. Watching them as they tune into and then interpret the voices from the page into performance is one of the absolute joys of teaching and being involved with young people.
What do you find difficult about teaching Shakespeare, and how do you get around this?
Teaching Shakespeare can be a challenge in the semi-arid cropping belt of Mortlake. Local attitudes to performance and to Shakespeare are hard to shift. Additionally, many parents draw on their own experiences of doing Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, or other plays and unfortunately some of these are negative experiences.
Getting students to move and feel the action of Shakespeare and to appreciate the meaning that goes with the words and tempo of the plays is a great way to get them started. Also, kids love the themes of love and lust, betrayal, deceit and of course comedy. Helping them to find these ideas really helps them to get into Shakespeare.
"We have worked hard to develop a performing arts culture in Mortlake"
What’s your favourite Shakespeare play to teach?
It’s so hard to pick one! So I’ll cheat and pick three . . . sorry.
For the reluctant and hard to engage students Macbeth has so many ways in for them. Love and deceit, loyalty and betrayal, ambition and love, murder and guilt and eventually madness and despair. So I do love Macbeth.
The Comedy of Errors is brilliant as well. I love the slapstick happenstance of both sets of twins and their family confusion as they try to make sense of the strange behaviours. Students appreciate the humour and I love helping them realise the comedy in the moments.
Perhaps I love Othello most. The manipulation and betrayal of the Moor from his much-loved Iago is incredible. Iago is the very essence of villain. He is cruel and determined to destroy Othello and turn him against his own wife. Shakespeare paints Iago as a calculating and intense monster who will stop at nothing to destroy his general. I’m not sure there are any other villains that compare to Iago. (Well maybe Brutus but that’s a fourth play and I was supposed to have one)
Which of Shakespeare’s characters would you like to visit your classroom and why?
My students would love to meet Macbeth. There is so much they love about the gore and blood and deceit and betrayal that they would like to ask him about. Me personally, I would love to meet Iago, from a safe distance. He is so focused on hate and revenge, I would hate to be on his bad side.
How have you connected with Bell Shakespeare, as a teacher?
Bell Shakespeare has infiltrated and changed my life as a teacher. Also as a Dad. From my first Bell Shakespeare experience in 2013 with The Comedy of Errors I was in over my head and completely obsessed.
On a teaching level, all of the Bell Shakespeare performances have given my students access and understanding to Shakespeare’s plays and language. It gives context and develops comprehension and passion for the written words.
I was included in the Regional Teacher Mentorship program in 2021 and worked with the incredible Huw McKinnon and Felix Jozeps. They helped us all to understand and believe in ourselves as teachers and helped develop the passion for sharing with students.
I have developed some incredible links and ongoing friendships with the Bell Shakespeare crew and we have been so fortunate to have also been included in the Artist in Residence program in Mortlake last year. Watching the passion develop in the students and seeing them express themselves with actions has been amazing.
As a Dad, my son Taine was likely to be exposed to as much theatre as I could find for him from the moment he was born. He developed as a performer and was incredibly fortunate to be a John Bell Scholarship winner in 2020 (Covid delayed to 2021). Being a small town I was also his teacher which was my privilege and I continue to be amazed by his passion and skill in performance.