When Shakespeare came to Carlton

By Gabrielle Murphy

Using Shakespeare as a vehicle for inspiring kids from the Carlton Flats, Melbourne University Law students thought they’d have to translate the Bard’s words into street language. They were wrong

‘Shakespeare in Carlton’ was an audacious concept in anyone’s language.

But a group of University of Melbourne Law students and members of the International Law Students’ Society ignored the inherent complexities and forged on in the face of heavy study loads and looming end-of-year exams. Not to mention the imperative to find paid employment and summer-holiday internships.

This was back in 2010 and the idea of using Shakespeare to break down social and cultural barriers has continued in Melbourne – funding permitting – ever since.

“We thought, why not film? And if film, why not Shakespeare?”

And why not Shakespeare?

For Stella Loong – University of Melbourne Law student and member of the International Law Students’ Society – the inspiration for the project was rooted in her religious faith and an accompanying desire to do something to bring people together and enrich their lives.

“I’d read about and experienced a few things that started me thinking,” Ms Loong says. “The disturbing story of a Delhi street boy whose hunger was relieved by a lactating dog, and closer to home, the great work done by some of my Uni friends involved with the Student Ambassador Leadership Program (SALP).”

Ms Loong attended the launch of a SALP-sponsored exhibition showing images taken by kids from Carlton Primary School who had been given digital cameras. “Our group decided to take the concept further”, says Ms Loong. “We thought, why not film? And if film, why not Shakespeare?”

All the University’s a stage

They refined their concept and successfully applied for University funding. They then collected a host of professional partners and volunteers to assist in preparing and running the program.

With funding in hand the group worked with the Drummond Street Relationship Centre, located at the base of the Carlton Flats, to advertise and conduct two Shakespearean drama and filmmaking workshops, the first during a two-week September school holiday, and a longer, follow-up program the following January.

Both workshops were held at the Melbourne Law School and attracted around 50 participants from diverse backgrounds who live and go to school in neighbouring communities, including recently arrived Burmese Karen refugees.

“Holding the workshops at the University had definite benefits,” says Ms Loong. “We were offered classrooms that were large enough for rehearsals, and adjacent to the park for outdoor filming, and various other spaces for different settings.

“We also knew that our aim of building an ongoing relationship between the University and its Carlton community would be easier to achieve if the kids came here.

“Coming on campus and experiencing it first hand helps demystify the University, makes it familiar, and cement in the kids’ minds that one day they could come here to study.”

Working with and within the local community

Under the direction of local filmmaker Helen Gaynor, and co-ordinator Arpad Mihaly, workshop participants were introduced to the general concepts of acting, Shakespeare, filmmaking, and editing.

Then, after experimenting with writing their own scripts and filming them with mobile phone cameras, the participants were professionally filmed performing a series of Shakespearean scenes.

Script Editing
The Shakespeare in Carlton project experimented with writing their own scripts and filming them on mobile phone cameras.

“We revel in a radical approach by emulating the way Shakespeare put on his plays,” says Mr Mihaly, the co-founder of the Fringe Festival and co-ordinator of the Shakespeare in Carlton workshops.

“We use the TV approach of rehearse and record, a method that is actually close to the way the Elizabethans prepared plays.”

Locking into an international movement

The concept of using the beauty and power of Shakespeare’s language to instill confidence, develop self-esteem, and promote a sense of belonging is not new.

In 2004, Jonathan Shailor, Professor of Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, conceived the Shakespeare Prison Project which continues to today.

Working with inmates at the Racine Correctional Institution, the project studies, explores, rehearses, and performs full-length Shakespeare plays. And through that, improve inmates’ prospects in prison and on release.

Shakespeare, a universal language

The Shakespeare in Carlton workshop convenors assumed that the classic texts would be too difficult or inaccessible for participants. To overcome this, their original concept included translating Shakespeare into street language. This not only proved unnecessary but ill advised.

Mr Mihaly explained why. “For people with limited English or low-literacy, it’s just as difficult to work in so-called street language as Shakespearean English,” he says.

“And what is street language in Australia anyway? Some form of black gangster rap?

“We found that the kids in our workshops were far more interested in working with the classic texts.”

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