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Others falter, but Leicester lasts

Nineteen years on the Festival Fringe, and back again with six productions and 100 players. What makes Leicestershire so durable, when all the other shires, even the mighty Nottingham, have fallen away?

The answer begins in 1992, when the axe fell on education, and retirement came surprisingly early for Robert Staunton, county adviser for drama and dance, and Jim Dutton, college vice-principal, the pair who had given up holiday time to bring Leicestershire Youth Arts to Edinburgh.

The following December, the phone rang in Jim Dutton's home; their Cowgate venue was wondering why they hadn't booked for 1993.

A quick check at Shire Hall confirmed there was no one and no money for fripperies like arts education, so Robert and Jim swopped their slippers for buskins and got their show back on the road. Six years later they head up an organisation for arts education probably without equal in Britain, and delivered at low cost, Jim claims, ``because the trainees do the training''.

Leicestershire now has an escalator of drama and theatre training that children can join at the age of eight and stay with until they are 30. There are nine junior youth theatres based in schools and colleges to cater for the eight to 12-year-olds, who receive a certificate of achievement. Six mid-youth theatres take on the 13 to 15-year-olds, and participants completing their projects are awarded a level of college accreditation.

At the next level, senior youth theatre, the projects are designed for the Fringe. For these players, and the technical team who service all six Fringe productions, participation adds up to an A-level equivalent in theatre studies, and can contribute to an access certificate for higher education. They play alongside old hands back from university and drama school, getting their first professional work. This year I saw them learning their craft in Across the Barricades and Jungle Book.

Both productions were in ensemble style, a ``house'' style that starts with the script, often adapted by Robert Staunton from a curriculum novel. The style so well suits the classroom that Oxford University Press already has two of his playscripts in print. With ``house full'' signs out, and increased advance sales, and bookings at Edinburgh schools, these two are giving early retirement an allure it hardly needs Jungle Book until August 29; Across the Barricades until August 22, at St Ann's, Cowgate, tel: 0131 557 0469

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