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Future stars of Gaelic

Angus Macdonald reports on an initiative to encourage Celtic drama courses for Scottish and Irish students.

Last week Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the Gaelic College on Skye, was filled with the sound of music and dancing, as it celebrated a week-long festival of Scottish and Irish Gaelic links.

The ceilidhs, workshops and art exhibitions were organised as part of the Columba Initiative (Iomairt Chalum Cille) established in 1997 to support Gaelic language links between Scotland and Ireland. But less publicised is some of the educational work going on in the background, like the "Lasair" summer school in Ullapool last month.

A joint Scottish-Irish initiative to nurture future stars for stage and screen, the three-week drama course followed an inaugural school in Galway last year and received funding from the Columba Initiative.

"Lasair" (Flame) was set up to develop the acting talent of young Gaelic-speakers in Ireland and Scotland to meet growing demand for Gaelic-speaking actors, and fits well into the aim of the Columba Initiative.

The 18 participants, aged 16-24, came from Scotland, Ireland and Northern Ireland and were chosen for their natural acting skills. Course director Trevor O'Clochartaigh says: "Coming from a theatre and television background, I have seen numerous talented Gaelic-speaking people who had no training and found it difficult to progress. With programmes such as Machair, the Gaelic soap, now over, it's hard for some people to find work elsewhere because it's more difficult to move from television to stage drama than vice-versa. The course is designed as a stepping stone to give all the students confidence to find more work."

The course involved teaching on the history of theatre, acting techniques, voice projection, movement and working with others as a team. It also taught the students about each other's culture and the close relationship between the two forms of Gaelic.

The tutors, Diarmuid De Faite and Simon Mackenzie, worked together, each using their native Gaelic and translating for the benefit of the others. This also worked on stage when both forms of Gaelic were used in the production staged in Ullapool and Stornoway to mark the end of the course.

Trevor O' Clochartaigh says: "We gear the dialogue to the audience, so this year the main part is in Scottish Gaelic. We use gesture, movement and voice to get the ideas across. Students have to watch and listen to each other more closely. This honestheir acting skills. The two countries share many cultural influences, such as remote seaboard communities and a minority language, and this makes it easier to communicate."

Seventeen-year-old Linda Bhreathnach from Galway has already reaped rewards from attending last year's course. "I've started working in the Irish Gaelic television channel TG4 soap Ros na Run. I play a twin sister from Dublin who causes a bit of mischief. I've always wanted to be an actress and took part in school dramas, but I've learned a lot from the Lasair courses over the past two years," she says.

Trevor O'Clochartaigh finds the students also benefit in other ways. "I have seen the people on the course changing over the three weeks. They have come out of their shells and become more confident in the way they behave."

Ten of this year's students came from Ireland, two from Northern Ireland and six from Scotland. Though the number of Scots has doubled since last year, Simon Mackenzie believes the further and higher education system makes it difficult for aspiring drama students to attend.

He says: "In Ireland we could have found four times the number of students, but in Scotland it was more difficult. There are plenty interested in drama and who wanted to be here, but Scottish students in colleges and universities don't get grants and they have to work during the summer to try to avoid rising debt."

One of the Scottish students was Iain Mackinnon, a 24-year-old teacher from Lewis. He has been involved in drama at school and has done a little work with the BBC. "It will be useful to me in the classroom and it will also help if I return to TV work," he says.

Lasair aims to provide further drama courses for young actors and in-service courses for teachers. Prospects are also beginning to appear for participants.

Simon Mackenzie says the Gaelic Broadcasting Committee deserves credit not only for being one of the backers of Lasair but also for encouraging drama. "They are putting money into more television drama productions to replace Machair and some filming has already started, with more filming this autumn.

"The Gaelic theatre group TOSG is also producing stage drama and I hope more radio drama. If these youngsters can make a living out of Gaelic drama for at least part of the year, they can work in the medium of English for the other part," he adds.

Further information from Marissa Macdonald, Gaelic Arts Agency, 01851 704493

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