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Glad to be glum

A Miserables time is being had by all in Birmingham, writes Ann FitzGerald.

Fully costumed and made-up as the downtrodden hero Jean Valjean, Stig Rossen, the star of the spectacular touring production of Les Miserables, was kneeling on the floor of Hodge Hill School's drama studio in Birmingham, miming the scene where he breaks stones in a prison yard.

Enthralled, the class of GCSE drama students watched with deep concentration, thinking of a possible role for themselves in the scene.

One by one they joined Rossen in the mime, and within five minutes a vibrant piece of drama had emerged: prisoners toiling, some sitting or lying in slumped exhaustion, prison guards patrolling the perimeter, forcing the laggards back to work, and the dark tones of Claude-Michel Schoenberg's music setting the atmosphere.

Earlier, Rossen had worked on the scene where Valjean steals a loaf from a shop window. The tension was palpable as he trudged across the room, pausing in front of a desk with the bread sitting on it. A shock wave went round the room as his deep, theatrical voice boomed out - then a fist through an imaginary window and a desperate dash for escape.

On a video re-run of the scene, students could freeze the action at any point and ask "Valjean" what he was thinking at that moment. This led to a discussion on how drama can highlight difficult choices, and how decisions made in an instant can have a train of consequences that radically change our lives.

Drama teacher Tony Grady explained that these themes were to be worked into the students' own dramatic pieces for presentation to the younger classes in Personal and Social Education lessons.

The Hodge Hill pupils are not the only youngsters having a Miserables time this term: thanks to a Pounds 20,000 budget put together by Cameron Mackintosh, BT and the Birmingham Hippodrome, 600 pupils and 36 teachers in 14 secondary schools across Birmingham have been working on a wide variety of projects based on a visit to the touring production of Les Miserables, also known to fans as "The Glums".

Terenia Dickinson, head of performing arts at Swanshurst School, explains: "The story raises so many issues that are of interest and concern to this age group - big issues like social justice, poverty, people being treated as outcasts and the fragility of social status."

Each pupil in the Year 10 drama class had created a dramatic monologue for one of the characters from the show, exploring their thoughts and feelings at a particular moment in the story. They were now working on group scenes to illustrate some of the social themes.

In the music rooms, two groups were working on their own compositions. While head of music Arlene Hopper was on hand to help and advise, the girls were running their own rehearsals with great assurance. The drama and music elements will be forged into a short stage work by next Thursday when the schools which have taken part in the project will come together at the Hippodrome for a Les Miserables "sharing" day where poetry, songs, drama, masks, painting, sculpture and dance will all be on show.

The Hippodrome's co-ordinator for the project, Peter Wynne-Wilson, explains: "Schools were encouraged to ask for the sort of professional support they wanted to fit in with curricular needs, and the variety has been enormous. " This support has included workshops with members of the company, from principals to technicians to members of the orchestra, supplemented by two follow-up workshops from local artists to help groups develop their work.

To get ideas flowing, teachers had the benefit of a video and teachers' pack provided by Cameron Mackintosh and a free preview for teachers and artists at the start of the show's Birmingham run. Reactions have been highly positive. Phrases like "out of this world" and "inspirational" bubble out when you ask pupils what they thought of the show - the starting point for "one of the best things we've done", according to one 14-year-old.

Hippodrome Education (0121 622 7437) hopes to run a similar project on Phantom of the Opera next year

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