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University-backed Shakespeare Festival moves online to beat lockdown

Monday 22 June 2020 11:48am

Queen’s High School pupil Juliette Bernard as Hecate, Queen of the Witches, surrounded by her familiars, in a 2016 performance of a scene from Macbeth. (Photo: Brian Scurfield)

Q: Wherefore art thou New Zealand’s biggest secondary school Shakespeare Festival? A: Online due to Covid-19.

For several months about 2,000 pupils (in 300 groups) nationwide have been filming scenes for the Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand’s University of Otago Sheilah Winn Shakespeare Festival regional heats, which moved online due to the Covid-19 restrictions. 

Regional videos were uploaded by mid-June, and assessors will select five and 15 minute scenes for the ‘National Festival’, which will also be held online at the end of the term 2 holidays.

Covid lockdown poses challenges

Festival organisers say pupils rose to the challenge posed by the Covid-19 lockdown, adopting new acting techniques to maintain social distancing, such as miming scenes involving two or more actors in close proximity.

SGCNZ CEO Dawn Sanders

Filming the clips saw innovative techniques adopted to capture the theatre experience; ‘fluid’ camera use was used for an 'in-audience' view, and the clips received minimal editing.

Twice a week since 30 April, teachers and students from around the country have received advice from Peter Hambleton, a regular SGCNZ Assessor/Director/Selector/Tutor/Actor via Zoom.

Festival tutors have shared their expertise in subsequent online workshops, including University of Otago School of Performing Arts staff member Ryan Hartigan, who held a session in May entitled “Attack the Stage: Getting started with the Text”.

SGCNZ CEO Dawn Sanders says the University’s support gives pupils the opportunity to explore Shakespeare’s work, which may lead to further study in the theatre sector.

“We are so lucky to be able to enjoy this warm and generous partnership with the University of Otago and are always delighted to see our SGCNZ alumni choose Otago for their tertiary studies.”

University of Otago Division of Humanities Pro-Vice-Chancellor Professor Tony Ballantyne says supporting the Festival reflects the University’s “deep commitment to the arts and literature.”

“Otago believes there is tremendous value in enabling young people to encounter the riches of Shakespeare. It is fantastic to see students exploring and testing their abilities through the staging of these performances, which have taken on new forms due to the Covid-19 lockdown – I’m sure Shakespeare himself would have approved of the adaptability and ingenuity that has shaped this year’s event.”

“That commitment is also embodied here in Otago’s fantastic new performing arts centre – which our aspiring actors and performers are welcome to visit if they are in Dunedin.”

In addition, SGCNZ is delighted to have launched its latest competition for all ages, Shake Out a Limerick!

Festival continues to inspire 

Among the almost 120,000 pupils who have taken part in SGCNZ events since its inception in 1991 are Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, singer Kimbra and US-based actor Melanie Lynskey. The SGCNZ National Shakespeare Schools Production (SGCNZ NSSP) was held in Dunedin in 2010, 2014, 2016 and 2018. Each year more than 5,000 pupils participate in national events, watched by more than 200,000 people.

The University of Otago is a proud principal sponsor of the event, and a number of University staff from English and Theatre programmes have served as performance assessors and workshop tutors during the Festival. SGCNZ has also provided the University community with several fascinating, internationally recognised speakers, from the Globe in London and other Shakespeare-related companies. English programme staff have also marked essay competition entries.

Three selectors will choose 22 students for the week-long SGCNZ NSSP, to join the 24 Regional Direct Entry Students.

Six associated competitions – in costume design, music composition, static image, poster and video title card design and essay – were also run, and entrants submitted work in May.

Currently, SGCNZ NSSP is scheduled to be held in Dunedin from 26 September to 4 October.

Every year since 1998, pupils from the Festival have been chosen for the SGCNZ Young Shakespeare Company (SGCNZ YSC) to train and perform at Shakespeare's Globe, London. This may happen in 2021 if border restrictions allow. For details visit the SGCNZ’s website.