A small rural primary in Devon is building a reputation for high-quality community drama. Following the success of a play that grew from the stories of local people about the First World War, Payhembury Primary School recently focused on a controversial road protest at nearby Fairmile on the A30 between Exeter and Honiton for its latest play, Gridlock: a Moving Tale.
The staff knew the security and intimacy of a small village school is often offset by the social isolation of its pupils and the strain put on its few staff of having to cover all aspects of the curriculum. A play-making project brings teachers, classroom assistants and parent helpers together, encourages curriculum and staff development and gives pupils a sense of power in making theatre that arouses interest - in this case, wide media interest and two full-house performances at the University of Exeter.
They prepared the play in school, taking over the university's school of education theatre for the last week of rehearsals. The theatre's staging and technical facilities were used to the full. And the children responded enthusiastically to working in a "proper" theatre, a change from from the usual village hall and church venues.
Headteacher Keith Vaughan readily related the production process and performance to national curriculum attainment targets. Lessons covered issues such as environmental concerns, transport policy and the arguments for and against road-building. Pupils talked to a protester, and people from road construction company Balfour Beatty and contractors Connect Consortium, all of whom visited the school.
They studied newspaper coverage of the protest and canvassed the views of local people. The school also had contact with the police and the county sheriff's office (which loaned the under-sheriff's personal hard hat and fluorescent bib).
Aware of the need to present a balanced view of events, teacher and playwright Joan Thornhill achieved the necessary distance by allowing the story to be told by the animals living in the road's path.
The play starts with two rats scavenging in the remains of the protesters' post-eviction camp. The rats refer to roads as "human runs - roady things". They are joined by a passing fox, whose questions allow the rats to explain what happened at Fairmile through flashbacks.
Action is cleverly threaded with original music including particularly poignant songs. Much of the dialogue is in verse and this stylisation also encourages distance.
The whole school was involved in the production. Infants created haunting dances of spirits of the woodland and the night, while ex-pupils helped backstage and took minor parts.
The work fused study in various areas of the curriculum into an exciting exhibition of learning. Knowledge and experience that might otherwise have remained inert came alive.
Not all schools have such newsworthy incidents as the Fairmile protest on their doorstep, but finding a locally relevant focus for a play is usually fairly simple. Most schools are surrounded by intriguing stories. Many can be found by a study of school log books.
Researching for a play in a Buckinghamshire school, for example, I discovered an entry from the end of the last century about the death of an 11-year-old boy who fell from a tree. Four days after the event the headteacher had entered in the logbook: "As Mercer's coffin was being lowered I marched the boys to the edge of the grave and gave a lecture on the danger of climbing trees."
Such entries give vivid insights into the social mores of the time and make excellent starting points for drama. Community plays have the unique quality of reflecting aspects of local heritage to members of that community, strengthening a sense of belonging. I used entries culled from an Exeter middle school's log books to create a play rooted in curriculum work. One scene sprang from an entry for August 30, l910. "Edith Cornall, Standard III, was drowned in the river during the dinner hour today. She was present at school this morning."
The potential of this entry lay in its lack of detail. Filling in the circumstances and inventing the people involved took place through discussion and drama. Groups of children worked on extracts and the whole was held together by narration, projected images and music, much of it original. Following one performance, an elderly woman in the audience confirmed that the reconstructed drowning was close to the actual events.
Productions of the kind mounted so successfully in Payhembury often leave teachers keen to repeat the co-operative process, and the performed work radiates a sense of commitment, energy and professionalism that is highly valued by pupils and parents. Forsaking the ready-made routes of Oliver! or The Boyfriend, this kind of production is a genuine extension of curriculum work in drama, music, art, dance and the humanities. When the subject matter of the play comes from the local community, the experience has a special relevance to those involved.
John Somers is a senior lecturer in the school of education at the University of Exeter