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Drama? Try a dancing Highland cow

I WATCHED the stressed-out Mayor of Hamelin pull his cocked hat over his face, dissolve into tears and walk away from his stunned councillors. He was 12, he'd heard enough of the infernal rats and the thought of performing his song yet again in front of a packed audience was just too much.

Teachers with a long history of school plays behind them will recognise the Mayor's reaction as one of the unexpected delights of a children's performance. We have just set out on our 19th play propelled by the enthusiasm of its P6 and P7 cast who are quite unaware of the difficulties which lie ahead.

One of this year's expected problems will be finding a dancing Highland cow although this will be easy compared to past challenges of building a wooden horse which could disgorge its army on to the stage, making ghosts appear on cue or dispatching Sweeney Todd's victims to the basement pie shop in full view of an audience.

To be truthful, the worst moments are over now that the parts have been allocated. Everyone can join in. Yet, no matter how often we state that a play is a team effort, everyone wants a solo part.

Our policy is "No stars here" but many children see this as the first step on the way to Hollywood just like the boys who expect to be playing for Man United next season. This year the allocation of parts went by without tears although there will have been some uncomplimentary remarks made about the director.

The plays grew out of a wish to involve children in a satisfying and engrossing activity which would have a knock-on effect on their behaviour, learning and commitment as well as tackling the strange idea that boys don't sing. We knew we were succeeding when the boys who rolled in football pitch mud one day were happily singing and dancing at the next day's rehearsal.

All our pupils have been hooked on the bright lights and the applause of an audience ever since, and the bzz words of self-esteem, raising attainment and positive behaviour seem to have been invented to describe our efforts.

This year we shall be performing Jack, a summer pantomime which can be played for lots of laughs and which reflects the changes in our style and productions. We have performed the classic stories such as Smike, Oliver and Tom Sawyer but came a cropper with The Ragged Child.

This powerful, dark drama about mid-Victorian orphans and the work of Lord Shaftesbury has an unexpected and sad ending which was met with a stunned silence each night. The actors were aware that they had a play which people did not like and I learnt the lesson of not getting above myself. School plays are for parents who want to see their child on stage, to laugh regularly and to hear toe-tapping songs.

The best advance of recent years has been the play with its own recorded accompaniment on tape or CD. There is no longer any need to beg someone to play the piano in the hope that they can turn up to the occasional rehearsal.

Now we can have our own big band every day always sounding the same, always playing the correct notes, present at every rehearsal and impressing at each performance. It is worth improving the sound system to make the best of the backing track and the existence of a taped accompaniment is now the first criterion for our selection of any new play.

For some children their part in a performance, no matter how small, will be the most enduring memory of their school days and for many teachers working through a play in rehearsal strengthens the relationships with their pupils.

Now the search is on for our pantomime Highland cow. The Mayor of Hamelin eventually dried his eyes and returned to the stage after a session with a supportive class teacher doing what good teachers have always done. She helped him to face the problem and find the courage to overcome it.

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