Joan Swann and Professor Teresa Cremin of the Open University report on Prospero’s Island, an experiential theatre project undertaken in a secondary academy in Hackney and describe how it promoted students’ active engagement with the plot, characters and themes in The Tempest.
As part of their reading in English, secondary school students in England have to study Shakespeare – two plays in Key Stage 3 (ages 11-14) and another in Key Stage 4 (ages 14-16). Shakespeare is a ‘statutory requirement’ for English and, one might argue, familiarizing students with such classic texts gives them access to an important part of their cultural heritage. Yet we also know that Shakespearean texts are not easy, and his theatrical world may seem remote from the concerns of contemporary teenagers. The scholar Salvatore writes of the ‘fear and resistance’ teachers may experience when introducing Shakespeare to young people.
Learning objectives for English acknowledge that students need, not simply to read dramatic texts but also to experience these as theatre. Key Stage 3 students are expected to understand ‘how the work of dramatists is communicated effectively through performance’, as well as engaging in role-play themselves, ‘improvising, rehearsing and performing … in order to generate language and discuss language use and meaning’. Nevertheless, the challenge remains for teachers to develop active and interactive classroom approaches that bring Shakespeare to life and capture their students’ imagination – approaches that position students as participants in learning, not simply passive recipients.
In the light of such concerns, we were delighted to have the opportunity to evaluate a theatrical initiative called Prospero’s Island, which aimed to do just this. Prospero’s Island was designed by Punchdrunk Enrichment, the educational wing of the immersive theatre company Punchdrunk. In immersive theatre, audiences become part of theatrical productions, moving through the set and participating in the dramatic narrative. Punchdrunk Enrichment applies these principles in schools, with the aim of ‘giving pupils rich and unexpected experiences, providing fuel for their imaginations and empowering them to create.’
Prospero’s Island was developed in collaboration with Hackney Learning Trust and a secondary academy in Hackney. As its name suggests, the immersive experience was designed to support the English department’s teaching of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. We were able to follow three groups from Year 7 (aged 11-12) as they took part in Prospero’s Island and associated English lessons.
Our field-notes record students’ arrival in The Hub, an utterly transformed school Reading Room that served as the centre of their theatrical experience. The room was quite dark, a single light hanging low over a circular table around which the students sat on stools. There was a buzz of excitement, as they wondered what was going to happen next. They were greeted by the disembodied voice of the ‘Games Master’ and discovered they were immersed in a digital game. The Games Master announced:
I have a simple challenge for you. Hidden in the darkness of this room, somewhere in the shadows, is the story of a storm, an island, and a man with unfathomable powers. Your task is to unlock that story, and you have two hours to do it, piece by piece. Do you think you are capable of completing the challenge?
As the students called out ‘yes’, the room darkened further and they were surrounded by the wild cacophony of a storm at sea. The voices of panic-stricken sailors could be heard, building to a crescendo then dying away. In the room, the Games Master’s three assistants introduced themselves and the students were told they were at Level 1 of the game – they had to work together to unlock seven levels and complete the Games Master’s challenge. The students were now in the dramatic world and seemed completely absorbed – as observers we could hear their exclamations: that’s sick, wow, oh my God! The students’ tasks involved puzzling through extracts from The Tempest; solving riddles and codes secreted in cupboards, pictures, and other artefacts that were slowly revealed in the Hub; and going on missions to transformed spaces around the school: Miranda’s locker, Prospero’s Magic Lab (see photo), the Nobles’ Camp, the Forest Room, Caliban’s Lair. It became clear that the school was Prospero’s Island, the Games Master was Prospero, his assistants Aerial, Miranda and Caliban. The digital game format and the blending of the everyday world of the school and the fictional world of the island engaged the students and encouraged them to explore the language of Shakespeare’s play, its characterization and important themes such as freedom and captivity.
Prospero’s Island was a high-quality theatrical experience in its own terms and students voiced their enthusiasm for the experience in interviews with researchers. This was ‘astonishing’, ‘amazing’, ‘very, very exciting’, ‘surprising’, ‘fascinating’, ‘fantastic’, ‘wonderful’, ‘mysterious’, ‘unexpected’, ‘puzzling’, ‘totally different’, ‘it was one in a lifetime’, ‘the best thing ever’. However both students and teachers also commented that it increased their knowledge, understanding and appreciation of The Tempest, as in the sample quotations below.
Comments on Prospero’s Island
When we’re reading the book, Miss says, ‘Try and imagine how it looks’ … but when we went to the Punchdrunk we could actually imagine how it was.
When we went through that, we actually felt like Caliban, we actually felt like some of the characters … because like Caliban was locked in and Prospero said he wasn’t going to let us go until we’d completed the levels’.
Before Punchdrunk, it was kind of hard to imagine the situations and atmosphere. Afterwards, everything got easier.
The experience opened my mind on English … a recent enjoyable piece of writing I have experienced was the Tempest since the writing was creative.
It was kind of action … and you were still learning … We did these good things to boost our knowledge about the Tempest, ’cos you can’t really learn everything by reading books.
When we were studying the Tempest and we had to write as Miranda, I was so into the writing that I carried on writing a few minutes after we were supposed to stop! I probably would’ve carried on if my teachers didn’t warn me personally.
During the missions these messages on the walls popped up and we had to read it in his perspective … as if it was us going through it and that’s how we developed the language in our heads.
I think it just allowed them to have a much greater understanding of the plot and different perspectives
They actively engaged with the text.
They found new ways to engage with literature.
My Year 8 class went in last week and their understanding of the play is so good now, like they had a good understanding and now it is just brilliant and they … really know the play and are able to be really critical about it and give different interpretations about it as they understand it better … they have a full understanding of the play that they didn’t have before.
I think they will always take that they had a really fun experience and they will always remember the characters of Prospero and Caliban … they’ll always remember those characters and they’ll know about those characters for their whole life.
I believe that the impact on students was a love of Shakespeare. It made English fun and they saw literature in a new light … there is an excitement around English with my class.
Experiencing The Tempest as a mystery to be solved in and through action and reflection, the students began to explore the play more fully, although sensitive attuned teaching was needed to follow up this work and to build more immersive opportunities into the English curriculum. As one teacher observed:
We are so bogged down with standardized testing and measurement…it becomes such a driving force behind the curriculum and when there are things like this and an opportunity for students and people to be engaged with it, it shows the bigger picture of what education is about … you learn that learning is living and life and you are learning on the go!
If you are interested in finding out more, do join Punchdrunk, Hackney Learning Trust and the Open University team at the British Library on 29th April for the UKLA Shakespeare conference.
The research team also included: Angela Colvert and Lucy Oliver.
Photographs by Teresa Cremin and Paul Cochrane. Copyright Teresa Cremin and Punchdrunk Enrichment/Paul Cochrane.
 Salvatore, J. (2010)
Overcoming fear and resistance when teaching Shakespeare. In D. Wyse, R. Andrews and J. Hoffman, The Routledge International Handbook of English, Language and Literacy
Teaching. Abingdon: Routledge.
 Department for Education
(2014) The National Curriculum in
England: Key Stages 3 and 4 Framework Document: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/381754/SECONDARY_national_curriculum.pdf.
 Higgin , P. (2012) Evaluation of Under the Eiderdown, London: Punchdrunk Enrichment.