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Forum theatre engages key audience

Every teacher knows the satisfaction of shutting the classroom door and just getting on with the teaching. For theatre-in-education companies such privacy can be a mixed blessing, for what is private is unknown and maybe unregarded. Teachers and pupils can be, and are, eloquent in their praise and gratitude of the work that theatre groups do, but their voices are seldom heard when grants are being awarded.

To do their work, theatre-in-education groups need committed enthusiasts on education committees, which is why Boilerhouse Theatre Company gave one afternoon at the end of last term to the education of a very important client group. At its base in the Arts Quarter of Edinburgh's Gateway Theatre, and in front of an audience of local authority officers from Edinburgh, the Lothians, Highland, Angus and Ayrshire and also fellow theatre groups, Boilerhouse gave a powerful exposition of its educational style.

Boilerhouse has spent most of the last decade touring from the Borders to Orkney, working with almost 20,000 schoolchildren. It models its work on the ideas of Augusto Boal, who devised forum theatre as a means of empowering people in Latin America who were denied any kind of legitimate political expression. It retains the essential qualities of theatre, but with this difference: during the first performance of a scene the audience are spectators; during the second the audience become interactive spectactors able to shout "Stop!" at any point, replace the actors and change the direction and outcome of the action.

For the past three years, Boilerhouse has been using this method in a project called Head On, though the performance that ended its tour in Dumfries last term differed hugely from the first version reviewed in these columns in 1999. Then Nick Davies's play was a compendium of every ill that could befall today's teenagers; gradually it was reshaped into a more Boal-like vehicle, where the epowerment shifted from the group to the individual, and the drama cleverly tailored into an interlocking set of problems, each of them important to the leading boy's sense of self-worth, without which, of course, no real personal development can take place.

Some of the public comments after the performance questioned whether the play was not in fact too "cleverly tailored" because the drama, powerfully acted by the three performers, so gradually unfolds the way in which the violin-playing boy is intimidated into shop-breaking that the cunning of the storytelling makes his fall as total and inevitable as any tragic hero. You felt that offering to change this delicately-structured drama would be like rushing onstage to offer Chekhov's three sisters tickets to Moscow.

Nevertheless, even without the important "assimilation break" that Boilerhouse schedules after the performance for its schools audiences, this adult audience, council workers and fellow actors alike, pitched into the forum theatre with, at times, an almost embarrassing absorption and conviction, proving if proof were needed the involving power of the Boilerhouse method. In similar vein, in the question session afterwards, the actors related their anecdotes of the many schools in which teachers had come up afterwards to express their astonishment at the unexpected individuals who had taken part.

The afternoon was also a time to look forward to Boilerhouse's next venture, interestingly their first foray into single-sex theatre-in-education. Next autumn, their forum theatre style will interpret Initiate, a single title for two companion plays by the eye-catching Isabel Wright, aimed at emerging women aged 14-18, especially those in some way disadvantaged. Schools are warned in advance that although the age-range includes S3 and S4, the two year-groups should not be included in the same audience.

Boilerhouse, tel 0131 556 5644

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