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Joining in the act

Timothy Ramsden on theatre education officers' role in teaching texts.

Three companies provide the spine of major classical tours in England. All three have works from the set books lists on show this autumn. And, thanks to two recent appointments, all three now have education officers providing a programme of workshops to help students make discoveries about plays (and a novel) they are studying. Each company, takes a distinct approach to education work.

Longest established is Cambridge Theatre Company's Andy Holland. Working with GCSE, A-level or older students, he applies Stanislavsky acting techniques to texts. With Emma, the current Cambridge tour, this means using the novel alongside director Mike Alfreds' script. The aim is to examine the story from individual characters' viewpoints rather than as a whole. Why do characters behave as they do? Is there a gap between their real and stated motives?

Working in groups, the class (he has handled up to 35 but prefers as few as 12) adopt characters, examining what they say and do, and what others say of them. The narrator is included and a seeming detail, that Mr Knightley is described as 37 or 38, becomes significant: the uncertainty makes the narrative voice seem more a gossipy neighbour than omniscient, while the group considering Knightley realise the kind of decisions actors must make - you can't play him without knowing his exact age.

Students make interesting responses, like the person who decided Emma must be lonely and adopts Harriet "trying to make another version of herself, to live for her as she is frightened". They discover real motivation can be so secret the character is unaware of it.

Good workshops respond to ideas each student group creates, extending and focusing them, while taking students into areas they had not considered. One direction Andy Holland finds useful is to lead students from going overboard on emotions, learning "Emotions take care of themselves if you know the character and their motivation".

His workshops cost about Pounds 65 (Pounds 95 if actors are also involved) and runs at least 2 hours. The longer the better, as Holland finds too often sessions end just as students are reaching the most creative point. Though he appreciates basic information about a group - have they yet studied the play? - he avoids views on the group or individuals in it so he can meet each class without prejudice. And he always stresses Cambridge's approach is just one possible route into a play. (071 401 9797) Fiona Lesley came to English Touring Theatre six months ago and has been working with young people at key stage 3, GCSE and A-level. She defines her job as needing "educational awareness, good dialogue with teachers and direct contact with students". If theatre skills lie at the root of Andy Holland's work, she focuses on language and theatrical context, reflecting English Touring Theatre director Stephen Unwin's concern for clarity and attention to language. Contemporary resonances arise through organic, intuitive means. The question asked in workshops is not "What is this play about" but "What is happening to this character here?" "It's fundamentally a very simple, clear process but it leads to a very intricate, complex mechanism. When you accept the craft of a play as your starting point, you become involved in a web of very deep, complicated processes". Working with both English and drama students, she has been examining Shakespeare's language of love in the context of this autumn's tour of As You Like It. A visit to the production is sandwiched some four to six weeks between initial and follow-up workshops. The timing aims to allow teachers to incorporate material within their own classwork.

With key stage 3 students the emphasis is on character and story, considering the play's mechanics and richness of language, and how language helps understand what is happening to a character. There's work too on the Elizabethan theatre as the play's birthplace.

For GCSE the focus moves from character to scene, "to fit the curriculum and students' own personal development". Character is still probed within an historical context and language remains a key workshop element. Rosalind's decisions are analysed in terms of the rhythms and structures of her speech, showing the tensions created by the language and the contrast between courtly restraint and the release in Arden. Students often relate characters' experiences to their own, while close attention to the mechanics of poetic structures ensures the play is considered with precision.

A-level sessions look at the play as a whole, its style and narrative development. All workshops run 2 hours, cost between Pounds 40 and Pounds 80 and have a maximum of 25. (0270 501800) Newest is Oxford Stage Company's Karl James. As associate director he will be involved in planning the repertoire and running associated events. He believes young people enjoy challenges. Aged 31, he defines young as anyone up to 30 and it seems likely he will be working with a wider age range, certainly including primary pupils, than his colleagues.

Besides theatre skills, James hopes to open up issues raised by plays "and provoke the audience to ask why we're doing this play, or with a classic like Twelfth Night, why we're doing it like this". Recently he has been working with refugee children in a north London school on a project to help other young people understand the situations their fellows face.

He hopes to have an international flavour to his work (and is especially keen on the breadth of children's work in Holland) and expects to develop residencies, bringing in experts on special skills who have links with the Company's work.

There will be workshops for young writers, and properly structured open rehearsals. He is delighted at the value artistic director John Retallack and the Oxford Stage Board give to his work. His final comment could stand as a measure for all education officers: "Just about every theatre company says education is at the head of its policy. We're not going to say that - if it's not clear for itself, we've failed". (0865 245781).

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