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City Weekend

Learning English? Start with Shakespeare, says Hong Kong performing arts education group

Shakespeare4All’s artistic director Shiona Carson says she recreates plays in different contexts so children will be interested in learning language

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 June, 2017, 2:01pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 June, 2017, 4:58pm

Shakespearean expressions may trip up even native English speakers, but they have also made the journey of learning English for children in Hong Kong a much smoother one.

Shakespeare4All, a charitable organisation backed by Swire, aims to help children improve their English by performing the plays of William Shakespeare.

But they are not the Shakespeare you remember from school.

The organisation’s artistic director, Shiona Carson, said that although the script remained the same, she liked to re-imagine the plays in a new context. Think Shakespearean tragedy Macbeth set in post-war North Korea with a Michael Jackson soundtrack.

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“Shakespeare is confusing. A lot of the children will say: ‘I hate Shakespeare, it’s hard.’ So I use their comments. They start to see that they do enjoy it,” the 44-year-old Australian said.

“They’re already learning a new word in English – why not learn it in Shakespeare as well,” she joked. “Kids are like sponges, they pick things up so quickly.”

The charity, established in 2003, works with about 10 schools in the city, offering workshops and speech training for children aged seven to 15.

Carson’s love for Shakespeare began when she was just a toddler, listening to Macbeth on a vinyl recording played by her parents at home in Roma, a tiny town in Australia’s outback.

The artistic director appears to be born for the stage, with her expressive face and a dancer’s posture. But she was a shy child, and not confident about performing due to her speech impediment.

“I was never particularly confident standing up in front of people, and I’d start stammering and my lisp was flying all over the place,” she said.

“I was passionate about [drama] from a very young age though I didn’t have the confidence, but it was inside me.”

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Instead, Carson decided to pursue dance, and went on to study ballet and contemporary dance at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane.

However, she later developed an illness which forced her to drop her studies. She got a job as a flight attendant instead, where the work helped improve her speech skills. She then headed back to Australia to study drama.

When the opportunity to work as a drama teacher in Hong Kong came up 11 years ago, she leapt at the chance. She took on the role of Shakespeare4All’s artistic director at the start of 2015.

The charity has a dual goal: help children grow more confident in English, and allow children to learn and play in a way that is not often encouraged in the Hong Kong school system.

“Because they’re thinking too much about the game, they forget about the language, and that’s why drama is such a great [platform],” Carson said.

“Shakespeare called actors players – because that’s what you do. A lot of students in Hong Kong don’t get that chance to play.

“With drama we use a lot of positive reinforcement, it’s about building your confidence.”

Carson teared up when she talked about what she loved most about her work: seeing children who started out uncomfortable grow confident over the course of a production.

“The most fantastic thing is seeing a small person come into my life – or a big group of small people – and I have a vision of how we are going to make something happen. It’s going to be magic.

“And they make it magic – I just have the wand.”