First Bite Theatre in Education Company launched its schools tour of That's Me last week, and very clearly its style of performance plus workshop package puts a stretch of clear, blue water between this company and its five fellows.
If you wanted one word to sum up its style, it would be "minimalism". I learned this even before they started. While the four actors were warming up, I asked their administrator if the lighting desk she was setting up in the Merksworth High School theatre in Paisley was the company's. "No," she replied "all we have is four chairs, a mat and cassette player," and she smiled the smile of a contented minimalist.
The same razor had been taken to Phil Smith's script. The writer is not called in until the first stage of research is complete, for the company is quite meticulous in the way it sets out to meet the needs of pupils. For this package, it enlisted the help of four Midlothian schools, of widely different backgrounds, and investigated the kinds of problems that concerned the pupils.
Working in its Edinburgh base, director Freda O'Byrne guided the actors into finding moments of conflict or crisis in the context of these social and personal problems, developing them with dialogue that preserved the authenticity of the original experience.
Only then did Phil Smith create the storyboard and dialogue for the cast to work on. Razor-work, for the most part, because Freda O'Byrne likes to reduce the text to something more resembling a film script. Her theory of educational theatre is that it is wholly for the spectator, and not at all for the actor. She stands at the opposite pole to the actor who wants to know his motivation, who wants to re-create an emotion, or who even enjoys a good speech. Instead, she tries to make her actors blanks, spaces for the spectator to inhabit. She wants the spectators to identify with the situations, supply their own motivations, re-create their own emotions, even to silently augment the dialogue.
For the same reason it is important to her that the actors demonstrate no technical virtuosity, nothing that could distance them from the spectator. "No more heroes," she says. "The actors must remain on the same level as the audience, in every way."
The result at Merksworth was almost Beckett-like in its anonymity, as the two actors and two actresses, without props or costume, played a dozen roles in 27 scenes in almost as many locations. It was a minimal theatre (apart from a curious insistence on mouth-made sound effects) for a spectator to locate himherself in an area of experience that has been made public, and to prepare for the subsequent workshop.
First Bite carries out its business of education with a fierce zeal. Its brand of TIE is more education than theatre, and it must be a disappointment to the company that three-quarters of the schools they are visiting are only taking the performance. The reason given is cost, though getting the play without the workshop is rather like leaving a theatre at the interval. To compensate for this, the company has arranged a package for these teachers to explain the workshop strategies designed to complement the performance.
The workshops focus on communication techniques for talking and sharing, enabling young people to "open up" and share their concerns. One technique used is "supported conversation", where the speaker has the benefit of assistants to offer ideas and responses. This principle of counselling from "the helpful other" is carried on in the end pages of the teaching notes which give addresses and descriptions of a dozen welfare organisations in central Scotland.
First Bite, tel: 0131 225 7993