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Drama of the Titanic

Deborah King sees pupils on an improvisation course pretend to be a microwave, an elephant or on a sinking liner

By 3.30pm, the lecture room at the youth hostel in Stratford-upon-Avon is starting to resemble a sculpture park. Split into groups, 33 pupils from Wallington Girls' High School in Surrey are enthusiastically placing themselves into positions to form first an elephant, then a scene from Jurassic Park.

This improvisation class is one of the nine workshops available to children as part of the hostel's drama package. Clayton Doherty, actor and tutor, engages the pupils, who are aged between 11 and 13, in a series of exercises aimed to broaden the imagination and improve learning skills and problem solving, while having fun.

"Think of as many different things as you can, the more variation you show me, the better your sculpture will be," adds Clayton as the groups are given 90 seconds to get into positions to create a scene from the Titanic.

The result when they "freeze" their positions amounts to an interesting combination of shapes and scenes: one group sits in a lifeboat, another is dancing, and others are in a state of panic. Clayton is encouraging, but suggests that they could also have included some musicians. By their third attempt, the pupils' understanding of this improvisation exercise has visibly improved and, working in teams of six, they produce diverse results.

The next exercise involves Clayton using his hands to tell a story about a butterfly and a flower, which later turns out to be a Venus flytrap. When it catches the imaginary butterfly, everyone jumps. "Think about this,"

says Clayton. "I scared you with my fingers. There were no fancy stage sets or costumes but I convinced you it was a butterfly and you believed it."

This is the essence of improvisation: if you keep focused and believe in what you are doing, the chances are your audience will too.

Next, Clayton demonstrates the power of imagination using scissors, a chair and a piece of paper, to tell the story of a little boy who is hungry. He holds the children's attention as they giggle and gasp at his antics. The girls then split into five groups and are told to form objects such as a microwave and a camera, and act out a scenario, later incorporating a problem which they will solve, into their story.

Elise Blackford, a Year 9 pupil, says: "The techniques are easy to remember because you are given an example first and then left to develop your own ideas." Some pupils, including Megan Harrison from Year 7, are new to the concept of improvisation. "I prefer it because you don't have to learn exact words from a script," she says.

Sue Workman, youth hostel manager, devised the drama package with the London Challenge, which works in partnership with the YHA to fund trips from the city. Last year, 85 per cent of the 640 groups to visit the hostel were part of a school package, and the courses have become so popular that early booking is essential.

After dinner in the hostel's restaurant, Keith Donnelly, a musician and songwriter, gives a storytelling workshop. He begins by singing a ballad while playing the guitar, later turning the song into an interactive story with plenty of input from the animated girls.

"It was as if we were writing a play because we were deciding what was going to happen as the story progressed," adds Emily Till, from Year 8.

Following a hearty breakfast the next morning, the girls attend a two-hour Romeo and Juliet workshop before catching a coach back to London.

"The workshops were such fun," says Yinka Lawson, a Year 9 student. "I especially enjoyed the improvisation with its problem-solving section."

On the map YHA Stratford-upon-Avon, Hemmingford House, Alveston, Warwickshire CV37 7RG Tel: 01789 297093 Other centres: 01629 592702

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