Shakespeare Straight Outta Handsworth

“…I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I loved my English lessons so much… I would often pen heartfelt raps and practice them in my Handsworthian bedroom to the soulful jazz music I heard on the local pirate radio station PCRL”

Rebbecca Hemmings

I am extremely pleased to finally announce the launch of Shakespeare’s Academy of Excellence – the latest offering from my drama education company Strawberry Words. In short, it is an after-school theatre school (for primary and secondary aged pupils) that teaches eloquence, confidence and critical thinking using a modern and cool version of Shakespeare’s work. However, it is only now as I think about how passionate I am about this work, that I realise its true origins and the huge potential this has for positive change.

As the oldest child of 6 who grew up in Aston and Handsworth (two areas of great depravity in Birmingham, UK), to a single parent Jamaican family, who saw and experienced many hair-raising moments she most probably shouldn’t have at a young age, a brother who was (and still is) in and out of prison and who statistically should not have amounted to much as an adult, I know that my passion for drama and English Language were my key to a better future.

In school and college, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I loved my English lessons so much. Was it because my mother had encouraged me to read and listen to Radio 4 from a young age? Could it have been because I loved creative writing? I would often pen heartfelt raps and practice them in my Handsworthian bedroom to the soulful jazz music I heard on the local pirate radio station PCRL. Perhaps it was because through reading and writing I could escape the inner-city and find myself in weird and wonderful locations in no time at all? Maybe it was all of the above, I may never know. What I am sure of is my love of English did me well in the long run.

Rebbecca at age 18 with her mum and sisters.

Rebbecca at age 18 with her mum and sisters.

My keen interest in drama too was key to me climbing the social ladder, as I was an extremely shy child. I could barely talk to an adult on the phone up until the age of 16. I lived inside my head. Growing up in a house where the dull painful sounds of domestic violence made for daily background music, I learned to internalise my thoughts. However, soon after discovering my joy of living vicariously through fictional characters in my school drama lessons and then joining Central Television Junior Workshop, I began to slowly exit my shell. My smile started to appear on the outside and my new found voice regularly made appearances.

The Wassifa Caribbean Show

The Wassifa Caribbean Show

Without going into great detail, I now have a university degree, a teaching qualification, have travelled the world, been a TV presenter, run my own theatre companies for 20 years and much more. My working and social life has been bountiful. On the recommendation of the academic and Criminologist Dr Martin Glynn, I gained employment as a freelance drama facilitator for the Royal Shakespeare Company (the world’s most highly acclaimed theatre company) when initially I had never read a full Shakespearean play. It was the toughest learning experience I had ever been through. Even when they wanted to quietly let me go as I did not pick up the teachings as easily as the others (who unlike me exuded Shakespearean pride and solemnity), I persevered and did not leave without a fight because I was being opened to a whole new world, that I did not quite understand but knew that I loved! I told them about my limited Shakespearean background and pleaded for them to train me further so I could learn. To their credit they did and I thank them for that.

Prince Charles asks Rebbecca about her work with the children at The RSC

Prince Charles asks Rebbecca about her work with the children at The RSC

You see up until my time at The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), I thought Shakespeare had no relevance to me and my life but as time went on I proved myself so very wrong! The work really began to connect with me. I learned about the Capulets and Montagues in Romeo and Juliet and it got me thinking about local ‘gangs’ the Burger Boys and the Johnson crew. King Lear really struck a chord with me when I discovered what his ungrateful daughters Goneril and Regan did to him as I had heard a child of one of my mum’s friends doing something very similar to her mum. When I heard Shylocks’s speech in The Merchant of Venice, I nearly lost my mind! He said as a targeted Jew ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?’ I wanted to holler and call all the Pan-Africanists I knew and tell them about it as they were always fighting for justice and equality for Black people. Shakespeare was actually writing about this stuff that I could relate to!

Rebbecca leads a workshop on Hamlet in school

Rebbecca leads a workshop on Hamlet in school

As my confidence and abilities grew in decoding the language, familiarising myself with his plots, analysing his techniques and discovering more about the man, I began to realise that Shakespeare truly is for all! It is not just for an elite group of society who speak with received pronunciation. It was also for people like me (and others) who grew up in poverty and had to learn English culture through school and TV.  

I could go on, but the point is this: the positive experiences I had in drama lessons, my English classes and The Royal Shakespeare Company all helped me to live with passion, develop my sense of self and communicate effectively. These experiences have enabled me to climb the social ladder. I am confident, self-assured and know how to read, write and speak to a very high standard (though I am not claiming perfection, I am always learning). If you are confident, literate and able to articulate well, you are much more likely to have a successful working career. This is not just my belief but is backed up by a plethora of research (The National Literacy Trust Review 2011 is just one source you might want to check out).

Shakespeare's Academy of Excellence Logo

Shakespeare’s Academy of Excellence Logo

Shakespeare’s Academy of Excellence is important to me because I know the power it has to help change the course of a life. All our child-hood experiences whether good or bad have impacted us in later life. We as parents and educators have the privileged ability to be positive leaders in children and young people’s lives and guide them in progressive directions. I cannot leave this earth knowing that I did not do my best to help others enjoy a better life regardless of their background.

At the time of writing this, I am working on creating a bursary programme for those who cannot afford the full fees. In an ideal world I would run this for free but space, people, resources and time all have to be paid for. However, I do not want money to become a barrier to learning. So I am working on truly making this accessible to all.

The really beautiful fact about this programme is that we have been running its sister: Shakespeare’s Kids Academy in schools for the last 3 years very successfully (you can see the testimonials on the Strawberry Words website). Teachers and pupils love it because we really do make learning Shakespeare cool and relevant!

Shakespeare's Academy of Excellence

Shakespeare’s Academy of Excellence

So, there you have it, my reasons for creating a theatre school that I am working on becoming a staple offering in the UK for years to come. Welcome to the world: Shakespeare’s Academy of Excellence! Straight outta Handsworth!

Click here to enrol.