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Otherwise Engaged

A Richmond theatre is helping teachers to assess coursework, reports Bernard Adams.

How can a drama teacher complete an exam board requirement to explore a text with a class for six hours and, at the same time, evaluate the students for a GCSE coursework unit? Answer: with difficulty.

Now the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond-upon-Thames, Surrey, has come up with a simple solution. Put on one of the recommended plays, in this case WS Gilbert's 1877 comedy Engaged, run it for six weeks in the theatre and, simultaneously, offer schools a six-hour workshop in which an experienced professional theatre director comes to work on the play with GCSE groups. This gives the teacher the chance to sit back, observe and evaluate.

The Orange Tree, approaching its 30th anniversary and by now a gnarled veteran in the forest of the London fringe, has for 20 years delivered Shakespeare to students.

It is currently touring schools with an education programme production of The Tempest - given in schools and preceded by a 90-minute workshop which explores the plot, the characters and the language of the play. But the GCSE workshop exploration of Engaged is a new development in that it is tied in with the main theatre's Christmas production.

It is a happy coincidence that while the director of the Orange Tree, Sam Walters, was choosing Gilbert's comedy for his new season, his education department was considering how to help teachers with the Edexcel board's coursework requirement that teachers explore and interpret a text with students - and assess them at the same time.

When they realised that Engaged was on Edexcel's list of plays, they saw they had a perfect opportunity for students to start with intensive study at school and then see the text in professional performance. The director, who will travel around schools with Engaged from December 1 until the play finishes on January 11, is Joyce Branagh. In addition to her previous work with the Orange Tree, she has just spent a year directing at the Bristol Old Vic.

Her presence will help teachers who feel that they do not have the directorial skills which exploring a play in a long workshop can require. "Having an experienced theatrical professional to work on a text with children can be hugely beneficial to the pupils," says Paul Griffiths, the Orange Tree's education director, adding: "It is also a unique opportunity for a teacher to make an objective evaluation of his or her class."

What sort of play is Engaged and what might the students get out of it? It is an interesting work - written just before Gilbert was subsumed into Gilbert and Sullivan. The play is really a burlesque of a whole range of Victorian conventions and stereotypes found in the sentimental and moralising comedies of the time. It begins in Scotland, ends in London and deals with at least six characters who fall in love at the drop of a hat, with alarming results. It's also about greed and how money can buy love.

Griffiths says: "The relationships are depicted in a very accessible way, the language is not difficult and I'm sure that Joyce Branagh, who has a wonderful sense of comedy, will tease out the themes of the piece and find connections between the behaviour of these Victorian lovers and those of today."

The play is notable for having some neat comic ideas which were "borrowed" by Oscar Wilde for The Importance of Being Earnest; and that it had a rather magnificent production at the National Theatre in 1975, starring Jonathan Pryce, Cheryl Campbell and Pauline Collins. Since than, very little has been seen of it. This looks like a case of forthcoming treats for all - especially teachers.

Details from Deborah Quysner at the Orange Tree Tel: 020 8940 0141. Email:

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