Dramatic gestures from a marriage broker

The stage is set for a theatrical get-together with France. Kevin Berry reports

Events come and go, and when they have gone there is often little left but warm memories, and a feeling of regret for lost opportunities. One of the intentions behind a positively lip-smacking French Theatre Season, now being prepared for the autumn months, is to ensure that schools are made aware of some exciting opportunities and that the opportunities are not lost. Exchanges and collaborations will be a recurring theme and not just for this year. Mary Jane Walsh, executive director of the French Theatre Season, talks of acting as "a marriage broker" between schools, colleges, theatre companies and theatre professionals on both sides of the Channel.

"It is a celebration of French Theatre," says Ms Walsh. "And the educational strand is but one of 12 strands in the overall season. It is a very attractive opportunity to promote language learning."

Awareness of the season is already being raised through a nationwide competition open to secondary schools, details of which are on the Internet or available from Comenius Centres.

In late June and July, that joyful time free of exams, schools can take part in drama workshops at locations chosen by drama advisers or at centres where schools already meet together. Two experienced French-born actors who work in England and an English director will be at each workshop to lead the activities. The workshops will also give young people an idea of what to expect from the forthcoming season, with 3-D theatre models, subtitled videos and publications, and for teachers there will be in-service training sessions on the effective use of drama in language teaching.

The workshops will take different forms, depending on what is asked for. Philip Brown, the French Theatre Season's special projects officer, explains: "Some schools have already said they want to put on an extract from a French play. One of the ideas is to look at a French text, and on the other page to have the same text in English. Then to look at the way in which the language changes how the actors deliver their lines, how the two languages demand a different emphasis and different gestures, different expressions, and how language changes the way we relate physically. Over and above that we want to break down inhibitions in language by using theatre. The workshops are a means to get pupils involved in theatre using a different language to their own."

Competition winners and young people who show sufficient talent and ability during the workshop sessions will be able to attend a one-week theatre course at the Montreuil-sur-Mer Festival or participate in the Rencontres Theatrales de Londres, a two-day drama workshop with master classes, and French students will be at both events. Actors and technicians from the Comedie Francaise are helping with the London workshop, the company making its first visit to London for 25 years.

In the regions, Theatres sans Fronti res, a company based in Northumberland, is touring an adaptation of Le Mariage de Figaro and French companies are coming over by the boatload for short tours.

All very well for big brothers and sisters studying A-levels, but what of beginners? A group of 20 pupils from primary schools will spend four days at an international theatre festival for children in Toulouse, looking at the French approach to theatre. The visit has been arranged through the Dialogue 2000 initiative by the Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges.

The European Theatre Company will have a special show aimed at the 10-14 age range and will play in 40 different locations during the autumn. Jennie Graham, co-founder of the company, welcomes the opportunity to work with a younger age group. Her actors will give a bi-lingual presentation with plenty of audience involvement, in French of course, to help the actors pursue the story. "We believe that we have a winning formula," she says. "It's embodying our company's main objective that language is no barrier but also that it's fun, accessible and easy and not just another French lesson."

School partnerships are going to be encouraged through seminars and workshops for French language teachers and drama teachers from the other side of the Channel. Sharing of teaching strategies is on the agenda, but come coffee time the diaries will be brought out, maps consulted and school telephone numbers exchanged.

A week-long conference in France during July will be attended by British university drama lecturers, again with the idea of mixing with French colleagues, comparing notes and fostering links.

Giving a detailed overview of what is going to happen is next to impossible. Events are still being developed and co-ordinated at the Service Culturel of the French Embassy, in London's Cromwell Road, and the place is fairly buzzing. As an example of just how seriously the French are taking this initiative, the Ministry of Culture has sent over copies of every French language play published since the war, a valuable resource that will probably be housed at the Institut Francais.

The French Theatre Season will certainly forge relationships and establish links that were not there before, and a shared enthusiasm for French theatre should give the links considerable substance.

Contact Phillip Brown, French Theatre Season, 23 Cromwell Road, London SW7 2EL. Tel: 0181 540 9497

French Theatre Season Forum on France a la Carte, Internet site http:www.campus.bt.com Campus WorldpubALC

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