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Behind the scenes

Pupils can discover the art of successful drama at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford. Nicki Household offers a curtain-raiser

Going to the theatre is a treat. A visit behind the scenes can reveal the reality behind the glamour, involve children in the creative process and show how a story is brought to life. At the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in Stratford-upon-Avon, schools can take part in one-hour pre-performance presentations in the theatre's main auditorium before some matinees.

Year 6 pupils from the local St Gregory's Catholic Primary School took part in a presentation before joining the audience for Adrian Mitchell's spirited dramatisation of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (until February 9), which features Father Christmas and the great lion Aslan clad, rather unregally, in a furless skin-tight leotard.

This version aims to enthral young spectators and recreate the magic. Just how it sets about this is the theme of the presentation.

"Young audiences are curious to find out how how things are done and they love meeting the actors," explains Fiona Lindsay, the RSC's senior education officer. "We're letting them into the world of the rehearsal room and sharing some of its secrets." Taking part with Fiona are 10 actors, the assistant director, assistant musical director, Andy in the lighting box and Peter under the stage. Once the introductions are over, the audience are given 30 seconds to shout out everything Jthey know about the story.

Then the actors read aloud a passage from the book. But what is required to turn this intotheatre? Suggestions from the audience include "actors with loud voices", "costumes" and "a script". Yes, all of those, agrees Fiona, but also action, imagination and lighting.

The lights dim and four actors (without costumes or make-up) recreate the scene, using expressive movements accompanied by a few words of script.

Suddenly, the descriptive passage becomes drama. The actors then talk about how they transform themselves into the characters. The four who play the children are all young adults, and they explain how the clothes and hairstyles made them want to run about and jump like children. They were helped by a visit to the 1940s house at the Imperial War Museum and by using "well spoken" English with no slang. Those who play wolves and eagles had been to London Zoo to observe the animals, and they demonstrate how a change of posture and a few props can convey an eagle's quick, fierce head movements or a wolf's slow, menacing walk.

Two actors illustrate the key role of the director by playing a scene full of classic stage mistakes, such as talking with their backs to the audience, not looking each other in the eye, or disappearing behind the furniture at critical moments. The audience relished spotting the errors and telling the actors how to do it better.

Other high spots include a slow-motion fight, showing how to "hit" someone without actually hurting them, and a rousing song from the show that everyone learns to belt out confidently in five minutes.

Virtually every RSC production is supported by a range of events, including debates, discussions, pre-and post-show talks and presentations for school groups of all ages. Pre-performance events (pound;2.50 for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) should be booked at the same time as the theatre tickets.

Upcoming productions include Measure for Measure, The Taming of the Shrew, As You Like It, Coriolanus, Richard III, Titus Andronicus, John Fletcher's The Tamer Tamed and Ibsen's Brand; the supporting programme will include some themed summer festivals.

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