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Directed to the heart of the play

Higher pupils are getting a director's insight to drama that should help with their exams, reports Denyse Presley

Seated in the stalls studio of Glasgow's Citizens' Theatre, under the glaring spotlights, are a group of 36 Secondary 5 and S6 pupils. They are here for a two-hour workshop on Stephen Greenhorn's play Passing Places, about two Motherwell lads who steal a valuable surfboard and head for the Highlands by car with the surfboard owner, Binks, a local gangster, hot on their trail.

This workshop is part of the Citizens' "Curriculum Vitals" series, which follows consultation with teachers and focuses on key texts. Director Neil Packham has read Higher Drama and English exam papers, so he knows the requirements, but he also wants to find ways of engaging pupils so they participate as much as possible.

Mr Packham, who leads the workshop, emphasises the importance of the studio setting. "You can create a unique theatrical environment here. Doing it in a classroom is just not the same."

The workshop focuses on key scenes and the two professional actors begin by acting out scenes one to three. When prompted, the pupils, from Craigholme, Hutcheson's Grammar and Bannerman High schools in Glasgow and St Luke's High in East Renfrewshire, put forward ideas that establish the characters'

personalities.

Binks is described as larger-than-life. He introduces the subject of violence by keeping a gun, which symbolises the future threat of danger. Alex represents a certain aspect of the Scottish male psyche. His mate Brian has a thirst for knowledge, which continually brings them into conflict.

"We're on familiar territory when we associate West Central Scotland with football and heavy industry," says Mr Packham. "We know plays about those subjects. But we don't expect to hear about Motherwell and surfing. It's the first of many international references that undercut our preconceptions and makes us listen on."

By asking the group what people expect from Scotland as tourists, Mr Packham prepares the pupils for the play's incongruities and gives them a talking point for the exam.

The group seems particularly interested in the shifting dynamics between the characters, so it is an area Mr Packham focuses on.

He compares the Cuillens' geology that the character Iona has written about to Alex's superficial resistance to be drawn into the fun.

"And why shouldn't the Jakeys, or alcoholics, hang around the library reading The Independent?" he asks. They are only one set of interesting social opt-outs the group comes across in the play.

The pupils are then asked to direct scene 17. They discuss whether Alex should steer the car in a naturalistic way. Opinion is divided but mainly they think the steering is necessary to reflect his blinkered view.

But Mr Packham points out that it is both a physical journey and a spiritual one. They perform the scene again without the steering, so Alex simply gazes straight ahead, while Brian looks around him soaking up the landscape. There is a real sense that now, without the props, they are completely out of their world.

The close analysis of the text is often broken up to allow for discussion of matters of staging and performance. "How am I going to put a car on stage?" The group mainly rejects the idea of a real car. Bearing in mind the play is a road movie for the stage, some suggest filming key locations and showing them on a screen behind the action. Another pupil suggests flashing up road signs, such as danger, falling rocks, and that a car radio playing appropriate music could indicate the mood.

In scene 26, Greenhorn introduces religion but, as the group acknowledges, it is not sectarianism with all of its dramatic potential. When Iona describes that to negotiate the narrow roads and passing places the driver must have a oneness with the road, Brian describes it as Zen. It is that same oneness that, the pupils later discover, the surfer must have with the waves and his board. It is a metaphor for the play.

The head of drama at Hutcheson's Grammar, Valerie Alderton, praises the Citizens' education programme. "Giles Havergal's masterclass on A Midsummer Night's Dream was excellent. And this is an unmissable chance for pupils to work with a director and get an understanding of the play that they wouldn't get from a performance."

The next schools workshops are on Anne Marie di Mambro's The Letter Box, the companion piece to both Passing Places and Men Should Weep. "The difference with Passing Places is that the women in there have opportunities," says Mr Packham.

"This play has so much to offer the exam, but it's about more than that," he continues. "I had a teacher in yesterday who pinned me down about whether Passing Places is nostalgic. I said it's anti-nostalgic. It is about tradition but it's also about moving on."

For more information on the Citizens' Theatre education and outreach programme contact Martin Travers, tel 0141 429 5561.The Pantheon Club's production of Passing Places runs at Gilmorehill G12 Theatre at the University of Glasgow on March 21-23. For tickets, tel 07814 173540 or 0141 330 5522

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