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High performance tales

Children's creativity takes centre stage when they are involved in bringing stories to life in a theatre, says Sally Pomme Clayton

Prince Bahram opened the door. At first he couldn't see anything, but as his eyes got accustomed to the light, he saw paintings. Paintings of princesses. Seven beautiful princesses. Black. Gold. Green. Red. Blue.

Brown. White. Underneath each painting was one word, written in gold, 'Bahram'. As Bahram looked, the princesses began to move. They turned their heads, tossed their hair, smiled, winked and beckoned.

'Bahram, Bahram, Bahram, Bahram, Bahram, Bahram, Bahram.'

And Bahram fell to the ground in a faint."

Prince Bahram sets off on a journey to find the princesses and hear their tales. For 23 teachers and 210 children from West Sussex primary schools, the tales are also the beginning of a journey - of performing, re-creating and performing again. The Tales of the Seven Princesses is a storytelling performance commissioned by Chichester Festival Theatre Education. It forms the centrepiece of a project to give teachers the skills to direct plays for children and the starting point for nine schools, divided into seven companies, to create their own plays. Each company has been given one of the seven stories, and since January they have been working with the theatre's education directors Andy Brereton and Dale Rooks on their performances. Next month, the seven companies will perform alongside musician Janie Armour and me, telling the stories.

Teachers are often required to direct plays and assemblies, yet few have relevant experience. This year, CFT Education is expanding its training programme so teachers can build skills as directors: "We want to give teachers a craft-based approach to making theatre. To show them ways in which they can release and develop the children's own ideas to create real theatre," say Andy Brereton and Dale Rooks.

The Seven Princesses project began with infant children watching a performance and responding to it by creating their own plays, and will culminate with their own performances. Each company has a teacher as director and a team of assistant directors who have been learning how to shape a piece and make creative decisions. The emphasis is on the directors building the skills to trust children's creativity. CFT Education's philosophy is that children's ideas are rewarded by becoming part of a play, so they become more confident about giving ideas.

Every other week, the directors meet at one of the schools to observe its company at work. Andy and Dale guide the directors' work and lead them through making a play: developing and selecting ideas, identifying characters, storyboarding, exploring space and movement, creating music and sound, developing design, making costumes, rehearsals, technical and dress rehearsals and the final performance. During the process, schools are being visited by a designer and a dancer. One company already wants to make a huge puppet to represent an evil devil, while another is decorating red balloons with faces to create a party of goblins.

Storytelling may look deceptively simple, but it is not about reproducing someone else's words, written or spoken. For a storyteller's performance to be meaningful, the stories need to be reinterpreted for each audience.

The Tales of the Seven Princesses is inspired by the Haft Paykar, a 12th-century Persian poem by Nizami, and draws on Islamic oral traditions to tell an allegorical story of a prince's search for wisdom. For the original performance, which was to inspire the children's and teachers'

later work, designer Amy Jackson drew on Islamic architecture, geometry and textiles for the set and costumes. During rehearsals we worked on movement and the relationships between story and music. Janie Armour created a different musical world for each story. Music helped the children anticipate plot, as sounds created mood and atmosphere.

The whole production lasts 70 minutes. I felt nervous about telling the stories to a large group of five to seven-year-olds. I did not know if they would be able to sustain their listening. But the moment Janie played the opening chords on her accordion, the theatre fell silent and the children listened eagerly. As I started to speak I could feel a bubbling, concentrated anticipation, which I can only describe as thirst - they were thirsty for stories and ready to drink. Making 210 children laugh was a delight for us. They enjoyed hearing the laughter from those sitting on the other side of the dark space - children they did not know who found the same things funny. They listened, drank, and were refreshed.

The listener plays a significant part in creating a story. Listening inspires and changes a performance. Even though a story might have been told thousands of times, the listener participates in something unique.

Each person hears a slightly different story as it resonates with their own experience.

When telling stories in schools I often find teachers do not show children how to listen. There is a huge difference between the group whose teacher sits at the back with a bored expression, and the one whose teacher sits with the class listening with their whole body. The way the teacher listens is picked up and copied by the children.

Being part of an audience allows children to participate in the collective experience of listening as a group; the rhythms and structures of drama; suspension of disbelief, and the physical world of space, sound, light and design.

The oral emphasis of the performance continues through the process of play-making, as the directors work without written texts. They learn ways of allowing the children's own images and memories of the tales to become starting points for new tales.

Andy and Dale like ideas for the story to come from the children themselves. "As soon as you give a text you are making assumptions about reading ability and comprehension and about getting something right. Young children are not limited to writing and reading, they communicate by telling stories in a physical and expressive way." This process of making a story your own is exactly what the storyteller is engaged with. Digesting, dreaming and re-creating the material. May we all, like Prince Bahram, be transformed by listening.

Chichester Festival Theatre

Tel: 01243 781312

Sally Pomme Clayton is a writer and storyteller who lectures on world oral traditions at Middlesex University

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