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Curtain rises on a lesson in theatre

Higher drama is proving a popular option in the Borders, where pupils have to travel to Galashiels to attend classes. Julie Morrice joined them

Gradually, they turn up. Twenty-seven 16-year-olds; 27 pairs of trainers and carefully flared jeans; 27 different ways of looking interested but not too keen... These are the pupils from across the Scottish Borders who want to study Higher drama.

At the moment none of the nine secondaries in the Borders offers the course, so from as far away as Coldstream in the east and Broughton in the west, the drama enthusiasts descend on Galashiels for the first of many three-hour sessions, run at the St Andrews Arts Centre by Nicola Toneri, assistant adviser in arts.

This is the second year the course has been run in the Borders, and six schools are now involved. Prior to 1997 students had been known to travel to Glasgow to take the subject. Now, the schools cover the costs of books and basic resources, while parents pay for transport and for up to four theatre trips. This year Toneri is overwhelmed by the response.

"Twenty-seven is too many,'' she says. She suspects a few will drop out, and that others will find what they need in the new Borders Youth Theatre initiative run by the drama artist in residence at the Arts Centre in Galashiels. Meanwhile, the 27 wait to start acting and improvising and learning with each other. No doubt they will get to know each other well, but for the moment they stick in their groups of friends. Twenty-seven girls. Boys? Who needs 'em?

"Tonight, I want to give them a theatrical experience that's as moving as possible,'' says Toneri. "Most of them haven't seen much theatre, and I want them to quickly get an idea of what they're aiming at.'' Live professional theatre is a pretty rare beast in the Borders. The Maltings arts centre in Berwick-upon-Tweed and the tiny Wynd Theatre in Melrose give a taste of the theatrical life, and the biennial Borders Festival is a rare feast. But even small-scale touring rarely penetrates into the Borders, and, for most, theatre means the town panto or the local youth theatre, and maybe a school trip to see Les Miserables in Edinburgh. But, then, it only takes an instant to get stagestruck.

What better subject is there for teenagers desperate to experiment with different ways of being themselves? Would you get 27 fifth and sixth years turning up on a Monday night to do Higher chemistry? Toneri doesn't make a song and dance about the theatricality of drama, but when she stands in front of the class saying, ``We need to create a safe environment so we can try things out. We can be as foolish as we please: no one's going to make fun of you,'' you know this isn't a maths class.

Tonight the group are working on plot, frame and technique: the building blocks of theatre. It all starts with a story, read by Toneri, about a girl and boy growing up together in a rural idyll of fishing parties and snowball fights. The story breaks off and she asks the girls to split into groups of four and five and to create "still pictures", motionless poses to illustrate Bosko and Admira's lives.

Making tableaux vivants is hardly a normal teenage pursuit, but without a moment's hesitation, they leap in with zany ideas and some tremendous poses. The snapshot of four children crammed onto a sledge heading for a frozen pond is superb.

The story goes on; Bosko and Admira grow up; and the snapshots are now of graduations and 18th birthday parties. The story gets darker. War has erupted, and the young couple have decided to leave friends and family to make a new life away from the troubles. The parting scene is darkly effective: emotional relatives crowd to say farewell while border guards wait, officious and ponderous, on the bridge of wooden rostra.

I tell Toneri how impressed I am with their inventiveness and concentration. "It's because we're working with fragments,'' she says. ``They're not being asked to compose a Shakespearean story."

After the break, the scene changes again. Now the 27 girls are foreign aid workers visiting a war-torn city. The rostra become an armoured bus; Toneri turns on a tape of atmospheric music and asks individuals to describe what they see from the high slit windows. Listening to each other describing solitary figures, shattered windows, blasted bodies, the class cannot fail to realise the tremendous power of the spoken word, the importance of tone, of contained emotion.

Red lighting against a black backdrop is the starkly effective setting for the girls to "sculpt" each other wordlessly into pictures. ``You're each being a director in your own way,'' says Toneri; and the snapshots of war come tumbling one after another, silent and powerful.

Back to the bridge, and Toneri asks two of the girls to play Admira and Bosko, dead and left to lie in the no-man's land above the river. ``Is there anything you would like to change or add?'' she asks. ``There are no right answers; just whatever you want to suggest.'' Now choral speaking plays its part, as the group read out bits and pieces of the epitaphs they have written. It may not be Shakespeare, but the unfeigned solemnity of the voices, the repetitions, even the little stumbles make it moving enough to start a tear. The lesson is over; theatre has begun.

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