Lodge Hill, the home of the West Sussex County Youth Theatre, is tucked away in the heart of the South Downs. The beautiful house and grounds were bought by the West Sussex County Council in the Fifties to provide a residential centre for young people. Forty years on, the centre is still surviving, despite diminished funding.
The residential drama sessions take an entire week or a long weekend and aim to help students gain practice in devising a piece of drama, a skill which both GCSE and A-level exams demand. Anne Fenton, the drama adviser for West Sussex, is committed to providing an opportunity for young people to work with professional theatre practitioners. As a result, past workshop co-ordinators have ranged from freelance directors to writers.
One hot week last June, Ali Campbell, a freelance director with previous theatre in education involvement, had the task of devising a piece of drama with 30 GCSE students from nine schools across the county. With enough commitment to rival any professional theatre company, they worked for six days from nine in the morning until nine at night. Towards the end of the course, HND students from Northbrook College of Design and Technology joined to dress, light, sound and stage manage the production. Time out was only allowed for meals - pizza with banana milkshakes.
"Children in War" was the theme of the workshop, based not on a conventional script-writing process but a range of techniques which combined images, choreography, story telling and improvisation. One starting point was a photographic exhibition in Chichester about Anne Frank. However, the students decided not to concentrate on one specific war or personality, but to take an overview of war in general. The improvisations were based on children's games and the dividing point between a game and a war. The students were encouraged to keep a logbook of their activities, as many were going to hold workshops of their own when they returned to school.
Every evening after supper the students gathered to wind down and relax. They called this "Dreamtime". Some wrote music for the performance and some wrote poetry.
Ali Campbell, his assistant Nicki Clark and the students worked on an equal footing, ensuring that it was not only the loudest member of the group that contributed to the production. The trust and co-operation that developed was transparent in the way the whole group mixed socially. New friendships were made and students gained the confidence to study A-level drama. For Anne Fenton, "confidence, understanding and commitment" are the underlying aims of the course.
The week culminated in a production in Chichester Assembly Rooms but, for the teenagers, the benefits of such an intensive course reached further than the final performance. As Nicki Clark says: "Each one of these kids has had an experience which has allowed them to grow in every way".
There is no better indication of success and happiness than seeing 30 young people run to congratulate themselves on their hard work by giving themselves a "group hug".
o For details of courses at Lodge Hill, tel: 01798 831610. Course price Pounds 80 for six days