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Clowning glory of acting out of character

Ann Fitzgerald celebrates 10 years of Language Alive's work with schools.

At a time when many theatre in education companies are in crisis, Language Alive in Birmingham moves from strength to strength. Last term, the company celebrated a decade of continuous work in the primary and junior schools in its catchment area, the high-immigrant HighgateBalsall Heath district of the city.

In it first 10 years, more than 250,000 children have participated in 80 programmes, and the company is just embarking on a new, ambitious season of work, largely financed by the schools they serve.

Now a company of six teacheractors, Language Alive began when its artistic director, Steve Ball, answered an advertisement in The TES for "a Clown, Scale 2" to work in primary schools in a language support role.

He recalls one of those early programmes: "Dressed as Charlie the Clown, I went into schools with a huge box of coloured shapes, with which I had to lay a new floor in the school hall. I needed the children to help me so they sorted the pieces by colour and shape, making new shapes by fitting pieces together, and then worked in groups to fill a large space."

This participatory style has remained a keynote of Language Alive's work. In a programme on flight, the children were students with Amy Johnson at the Imperial Flying School. They made and tested simple paper models of an aeroplane, a helicopter and a parachute. They then analysed the differences in flight before following Amy Johnson on her historic flight to Australia, each stage marked on a giant map of the world. At each stop there were problem solving and writing activities for the children to do.

More personal issues are expl-ored in the programme on personal hygiene for key stage 1, led by Detective D Tergent, and a programme on bullying, "It Wasn't Me, Miss", was commissioned by BBC Education to be broadcast this spring.

Celia Reeves, Year 4 teacher at Anderton Park JI School, says: "The children believe in the characters and feel they have really been there because they have been part of it. Because of this involvement, the follow-up work is marvellous."

Celia Reeves is also a member of the company's advisory teachers' panel, and feels this close liaison with class teachers in choosing programmes is one of the secrets of Language Alive's effectiveness. "They know the difficulties many children have with language and target their programmes for a particular age group. The work fits into the year's work scheme and be-comes integral to the curriculum."

No wonder the schools rushed to rescue Language Alive when a redistribution of Birmingham City Council funding in 1993 threatened to break up the company. Schools themselves now contribute 90 per cent of the company's revenue through yearly local service agreements. Schools buy in units of work per year (an average cost is about Pounds 90) and each actorteacher services and liaises with a cluster of 12 schools. Different programmes can be shared among the various school clusters so that everyone gets the work they most need at the time.

Sue Middleton, deputy head of Gilbertson Primary School and a member of the management committee, feels Language Alive broadens the horizons of children and teachers alike. "Teachers see their pupils in a different light and are often surprised at how the techniques used open up a different area of their potential."

Artistic director Steve Ball has always made empowering teachers central to the company's philosophy, and courses for them in using drama techniques in the classroom are part of the company's work. This will be put on an even firmer footing this year with the opportunity for teachers to take an in-service certificate in theatre in education, validated by the Central School of Speech and Drama.

Language Alive: Percy Shurmer School, Longmore Street, Birmingham B12 9ED. TelFax: 0121 446 4301.

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