Pure chance led me to be a volunteer for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Living just 30 miles from the town, I was quite a regular visitor to the theatre, but only once every 2 or 3 years to any of the SBT sites if we had foreign family or friends staying. This all changed in early July last year when I was with three American friends in Stratford to see a play and visit some of the houses. In one of them I saw a leaflet seeking volunteers at the soon to be reopened Shakespeare's New Place.
Now, over the years, I had been several times to most of the houses, but never to New Place, so I was intrigued. I had seen the Time Team programme about the archaeology of the site, I was well acquainted with the generality of Shakespeare and his time in Stratford and London, I had seen all but two of the plays live, and I regularly saw plays at both the RSC and the Globe. Furthermore, my wife was on my back now that I was retired and thought I would be “good” as a guide at a National Trust house or similar!
Nearly a whole year on, I think responding to this leaflet was the best thing I have done in ages.
I engage with people as a “Visitor Engagement Volunteer”. Initially the position involved informally chatting with visitors about the story of New Place, answering questions, discussing Shakespeare’s life and times, and, of particular importance, helping people understand what all the new sculptural artwork was about. In the light of the experience of the first few weeks, it became obvious that we needed to have more formal opportunities to tell people the basics. We have now introduced talks every half an hour, delivered by whoever is covering that part of the site at the time. Sometimes it`s one of the permanent staff, the “Period Interpreters,” who are specialists in their field with deeper knowledge than most of us volunteers, but just as frequently, it will be one of the volunteers delivering these more formal presentations. This has worked very well and it is a lot of fun because, unless a group has pre-booked, we never know what the next talk`s audience will be.
Sometimes you are talking to just a small group of friends, other times you are talking to a variety of couples, singles, family groups, and students. Occasionally, you will get a large school group or a pre-booked university group—the permutations are never the same and always changing. Some people have a scholarly pedigree with Shakespeare studies; some are amateur enthusiasts; some know very little. Some people are with us because their kids are studying Shakespeare at school, so they need to bring them, maybe reluctantly! And, of course, every day a huge cross-section of the world`s countries are represented with varying understanding of the English language.
It is this element of having to vary, amend, shorten or lengthen, tell cleaner or ruder stories, and temper jokes and playfulness with a more serious approach that is really stimulating and makes the role a delight.
Find out more about volunteering at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.