Drama - Fringe benefits of treading the boards

Teachers and students take to the Edinburgh Festival stage

For most teachers, the end of term is a time to wind down and start thinking about work-free days of summer indolence.

For Sam Mitchell, however, it is something quite different. "We're going into rehearsals when we break up," the drama teacher at Amersham School in Buckinghamshire, England, said. "We'll be rehearsing every single day. Everyone else is thinking: `It's the end of term, hooray!' And I'm thinking: `My work is just beginning.'"

Ms Mitchell is one of the teachers who will be taking a performance to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland this year. She will be directing 19 students in Little Foot, a tale of revenge and relationships seen through the eyes of teenagers.

"I've always dreamed of taking a show to Edinburgh," Ms Mitchell said. "And this was the right show at the right time."

Simon Roche, drama teacher at St Edward's School in Oxford, is also bringing a successful school play to a wider audience at the festival. He will be staging a six-student, two-adult production of David Hare's South Downs, set in a boarding school.

Meanwhile, several US high schools will be appearing at the Fringe, which starts next week, as part of the American High School Theatre Festival. Students from Pearl City High School in Hawaii, for example, will be staging Hamlette, a sex-reversal version of the Shakespeare play, while Oregon's Newberg High School is performing a version of Moliere's Le Malade Imaginaire, updated to the 1960s.

And more than 40 students from Beijing's Number 4 high school will be performing a fusion of traditional Chinese dance and contemporary street moves in Young China Shines Beijing.

Mark Cooper-Jones believes that school-related shows will always appeal to audiences. Along with two fellow comedians, the geography teacher is bringing a comedy sketch show to the Fringe. Entitled The School, it is set in a stereotypically eccentric English boarding school.

"Boarding schools are quite odd places," Mr Cooper-Jones, a former boarder, said. "The idea of leaving your children, age 8, and seeing them only every three weeks - I think that's utterly, utterly bizarre.

"People just want to know what goes on. They always want to know that it's twisted and awful and turns you into a different person. And that's basically what we affirm in this show."

The School features a bombastic headteacher, a frustrated choirmaster, and an inventory of punishments that includes standing in the school lake for three days and being laminated.

Similarly, the St Edward's production depicts the rhythms and routines of a private school, although it aims for greater realism. This, Mr Roche believes, is vital: he has cast adults in the teacher roles to avoid coming across as a school play on tour.

"In most school theatres, friends, families, teachers come and watch them for who they are," he said. "In Edinburgh, it's their responsibility to get an audience. It's their responsibility to do those things that are normally provided for them at school.

"It will be interesting to see how they respond when you say, `OK, we've sold five tickets for tomorrow's performance. You need an audience - go out and get one.'"

Ms Mitchell's students, too, will be pounding the cobbled streets of Edinburgh, hoping to appeal to an audience that has plays, shows and comedy performances to choose from.

"We have a chorus of prehistoric creatures, covered from head to toe in mud," she said. "Nineteen of us. And they're masked as well. So I think they will make quite an impression on the streets of Edinburgh."

Just in case, though, Ms Mitchell has also contacted Edinburgh University and will be offering free tickets to students. "I'd rather a free audience than no audience at all," she said. "But I know, as an audience member, that I'd be interested in seeing what we have."

For more information on these shows and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, see www.edfringe.com.

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