Madurai boy is youngest winner of Helen O’Grady International Shakespeare slam-2020

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Madurai boy is the youngest winner of the first international online edition of Shakespeare slam organised by Helen O’Grady Drama Academy

Till four months, eight-year-old R Visakhan barely knew who William Shakespeare was. Then, Saturday night changed it all for the class II student of Mahatma CBSE School in Madurai. “I want to read and perform the Bard’s works,” he says playfully, after winning second prize in the junior mono-act competition of Shakespeare’s plays conducted by the India chapter of Helen O’Grady International, an organisation that has been globally promoting personal development through drama for 40 years.

What made the flagship annual event — The Battle of the Bard — more challenging this year was its online format due to the pandemic. However, that did not reduce the number of participants or lessen the enthusiasm of contestants who shared the digital platform to connect and perform some of the greatest works of the master story teller from their places of solitude and isolation, says Arpita Mittal, CEO of the India chapter of the Perth (Australia)-based organisation.

Vishakan’s delighted parents say, but for the online competition (posters of which they came across accidentally), their son would not have been exposed to the works of the celebrated playwright at this impressionable age. “He does not have stage fright and can memorise things fast, so we made him participate to keep him off gadgets,” says M Renganathan of his son, who enrolled in Helen O Grady’s workshop on dramatics for a week. From his school day memories of studying Shakespeare, Renganathan chose Shylock’s role in Merchant of Venice for his son to enact. The three minute video clip was filmed on his phone.

“We saw Vishakan enjoy his rehearsals. The instinct that the big announcement could be in his favour strengthened when the international panel of judges expressed their awe at an eight-year-old’s memory and acting skills during the virtual prize ceremony,” he adds.

The Battle of the Bard

More than 600 entries from 22 States were submitted and the panel of eight Indian judges short listed 10 best in each category: mono-act and monologues/soliloquy for juniors (8 to 12 years) and seniors (13 to 20 years) and open category (for all above 20 years). Helen O Grady’s international directors — Lisa Semple from Ireland, Houda Farrahe from Morocco, Vickie Stroud from South Africa, Alan Montanaro from Malta, Gavin Pollock and Duncan Rice from Africa — further shortlisted five nominations in each category and announced the final winners.

Vishakan was the youngest contestant. Between him and the oldest awardee Achuthan Kumar, 70, there were a dozen more winners who made the awards function heartwarming for the 15,000 viewers who joined in the live streaming. The first two years of Shakespeare slam were held as inter-school competition across multiple cities. Tamil Nadu with 52 submissions debuted at the competition this year and gave three winners in a list of 15.

“So many people with a joy and wonder for Shakespeare found a place of connection,” says Arpita, who established the India chapter in Mumbai in 2003. The brilliant performances by the participants reflects that the appetite for literature and understanding of Shakespeare has not diminished, she says.

From the popular plays such as Hamlet, As you Like It, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet to Othello, Midsummer Night’s dream, Julius Caesar, Taming of the Shrew, the contestants’ selection of plays was wide. “

“Shakespeare is an integral part of our school learning yet our students are put off by his works largely because the way it is taught in schools,” says Archana Dange, TN operations head.

“We have to make his writings accessible to all and the best way to understand his works is through performance,” she adds.

Winners are entitled to participate in the Shakespeare School Festival held annually in Cape Town every September. This year’s winners will have to wait and count on their luck depending on the COVID-19 situation.

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