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A day of games and play time

Fife primary classes are learning drama by writing and staging their own plays with the help of the Byre Theatre. Brian Hayward joins one workshop.

Heather Mitchell has been education officer at the Byre Theatre, St Andrews for precisely nine years and one month, and for the past eight of those years she has run her "Play in a Day" scheme for Fife's Primary 6s and 7s.

The simple premise of the exercise is that a group of up to 30 pupils, split into two teams, learn about classic play structure and then write, rehearse and perform their own play, with their own design, lighting, props, set and costume, all in five-and-a-half hours. That they can do it is a testimony to the three ingredients: their natural creativity, the skill of the three leaders - the education officer, a playwright and a technician - and the attractive, well-designed teaching materials.

The passing years have polished and honed the learning experience to a glossy efficiency, but have not robbed it of any of its infectious excitement. Tired and hungry for lunch the children may be, but they still clamour to be allowed to explain "character flaw" or "dramatic conflict", or noisily compete to impose their own ideas of how the plot should develop.

Two schools are sharing this workshop: Lundin Mill Primary and Kemback Primary. A little initial questioning discovers that few have experienced theatre, so the film Babe becomes the exemplar. The children are given a list of eight dramatic elements, and the pig's story is searched for examples of "the hero's wish", "the friend that is unintentionally a foe", and the rest. The critically-acclaimed playwright Susan McClymont leads this section and brings the children to insights into the film's plotting and characterisation.

Every child then invents an example of one of these elements, and these become the spurs to the afternoon's play.

To decide which team writes the play, they compete in a colourful board game which the leaders have rolled out and taped to the floor. Two children throw the dice and team mebers advance over the squares, answering the questions to win the cards that will decide the game. Two leaders act as team coaches.

The winners go off to one side of the hall to write the five scenes of The Hamster From Hell with Ms McClymont, who is so bombarded with ideas that she compares it to sitting under a waterfall. Meanwhile, the losers discover how dramatic text is set out with the help of a Bertolt Brecht script and a handful of highlighter pens.

Once the play is written, Ms McClymont goes away to type and photocopy the scripts, giving Ms Mitchell the chance to introduce technician Ian McLinden and his stereophonic sound effects and impressive slow fades, which some of the children will choose and help to operate during the rehearsals and performance.

This session the workshops are being held in the Rothes Halls in Glenrothes while the Byre Theatre is being refurbished. Next year the children may again have the run of the Byre wardrobe and props, but this group has to improvise from whatever can be found.

Lorraine McMillan, headteacher of Lundin Mill Primary, appreciates how her P7 class responds to the informality of the teaching. "It's interesting to see how they rise to the occasion. They (the leaders) are getting so much more out of them. It's a fun day, but so much of the curriculum is being touched on, not just the language work."

For Moira Davie, headteacher of Kemback Primary, the curriculum almost takes second place to the peripheral benefits of socialising. "We're a small school, with a role of only 16. My P6s and P7s are all boys, so today they are getting the chance to meet older girls!" The Play in a Day workshops are a deservedly popular occasion in the Fife calendar. Ms Mitchell finds it best to operate a strictly first come, first served policy. This year the Glenrothes week sold out in three days, with 14 schools being unlucky in their applications. Such an effective learning experience deserves more exposure, in Fife and elsewhere.

Heather Mitchell, Byre Theatre 01334 475000

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