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Meeting of minds over the miles

Singapore and Scottish pupils at a youth arts festival find that distance is no bar to their interests, Brian Hayward reports

Of all the visiting Singapore girls it was tall Pavithra, who hoped to be an actress, who was most excited by the novelty of the Cumbernauld Theatre drama project. Vanessa was impressed by the lateral thinking and versatility of problem solving, while Shangari was relieved that people were so welcoming, because their first contacts with their Scottish peers had been by website and e-mail and to find "FU Singapore" among the messages had been "off-putting".

All the girls are from Katong Convent Secondary school, a microcosm of multi-cultural Singapore. They speak Tamil, Malay and Mandarin among themselves but are fluent in English; "their first language," explained Anne Leong, their school drama leader.

It was her productions that won the school its reputation for drama and when a Singapore theatre company needed a school as a partner, Katong Convent was an obvious choice. The theatre company was Necessary Stage, where Australian Sean Tobin has been an associate director for nine years.

He thought the pairing of his company with Cumbernauld Theatre would be productive because the two theatres share the same ethos and both work with young people, and on projects rather than plays. As for the convent girls, he extols them for their poise and intelligence, their zeal to achieve, their willingness and their wish to be challenged.

For Simon Sharkey, the driving, coaxing Cumbernauld Theatre director, his first task was to help the Singapore and Scottish pupils - selected from three Glasgow secondaries by teachers who thought they would benefit from an intensive course of creative and collaborative education - find some common ground. They had to hack through the international stereotypes but found similarities in their tastes in popular music and their concerns with personal relationships.

Building on these shared interests, and the cultural distance that divided them, Mr Sharkey has created a promenade theatre that has transformed the Cumbernauld Theatre foyer, the theatre bars, the stage, the green room, the scenic bay and all the backstage passages that connect them.

The audience is asked to journey through a series of theatrical metaphors, sometimes as participants, sometimes as spectators. Their experience parallels the journeys the young people have made. They see how welcome can turn sour, they look themselves in a mirror and maybe confess to a fault, run the gauntlet of blame, and of praise, see for themselves that things are not always as they seem, and finally have the choice of refusing the herd instinct. Entitled Fires Within Fires, the experience is the theatrical climax to the North Lanarkshire Youth Arts Festival, which ends tomorrow.

The musical climax, in the opinion of Gillian Ferrie of the North Lanarkshire arts outreach team, is today's 12-hour Festival Finale in Motherwell's Concert Hall and Theatre, where the walls and foyer are decorated with the graffiti art, images and live sculpture created in the festival fortnight's workshops and the stages are taken by the Battle of the Bands and the DJ Expo, in which four participants from the DJ workshops are invited to play a set alongside DJ Tania Swift of Beat 106.

It completes a festival in which the arts team set out to cover North Lanarkshire from Cumbernauld to Wishaw and Shotts to Airdrie. They started by asking over-14s what they wanted and were rewarded with more than 3,000 responses from schools. Ms Ferrie says the demand for dance was expected; even all the volunteers for the street-dance workshop being boys was no surprise. However, she had not expected the great demand for graffiti art.

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