Playing out children's own voices

The curtain goes up tonight on Borderline's three new youth theatres, writes Brian Hayward

You could say this is pay-back time in Ayr. Last year the Scottish Arts Council reshaped the educational arts scene with its New Directions initiative, handing out sizeable sums of National Lottery money to a handful of companies with a track-record of achievement. The Ayr-based Borderline Theatre Company was one, carrying off pound;200,000 to expand its work in South Ayrshire by setting up youth theatres, in Troon, Girvan and Maybole. This week the groups go public.

They started up last July with weekly meetings and occasional weekend "intensives" in dance, voice, music and writing. The chosen age group was 9-16, mostly because South Ayrshire already provided for the five to eight-year-olds.Borderline's education and outreach development officer, Christine Woodburn, who leads the Troon group, believes the age range works well. "The older ones feel more adult and responsible, and the young ones try to be more grown up".

Apart from local work, the plan is for the three theatres to join every summer in a major production. Accordingly, this week Woodburn presents the first joint production. The play is The Big Empty by Isabel Wright and Borderline has been provident enough to secure the services of the playwright, who is one of the hot properties of Scottish theatre. "Everyone wants to work with her," says Woodburn. "When she finishes here she has commissions waiting from Boilerhouse and Lookout theatre companies."

This is her first youth play. She worked with the three groups in January, gleaning ideas about their concerns, catching the nuances of their speech forms and rhythms. "Of course, with 90 kids you get 90 different ideas - a huge mixed bag of everything. Then I started to introduce pieces of my text to see if it was working, and then wrote the script from what was coming out.

"The children are so honest about what they like and what hey don't like. They see through things so easily, they're quick to smell a rat. They're harder than actors who are paid to say the lines. They'll challenge me, ask me why I've put a thing like this and not like that. It's so exciting for a new writer to listen to them and find out what works, what they relate to."

A central idea is that the children live in a world where all the adults are disappearing. "I suppose as a writer I'm interested in the idea of rebellion, at the time you're growing up and leaving home, the choices that you make, sometimes quite self-destructive. It's a ghost story and mysterious things happen, but through it runs this vein of leaving home, gaining independence, finding your own personality."

In the first week's rehearsal we watched the young actors, scripts in hand, coming to terms with her sinewy dialogue and understated emotion. Wright knows their problem. "When children read aloud in schools, it's often poems or prose. For me, drama is the way that people speak. When I write I am trying to tap into the children's own voices, the energy and personalities they reveal in improvisation.

"Even so, they find the idea of a script quite daunting. I have to say to them, 'It's only words, don't be frightened of it.' "Once they get through to the text, they can be incredibly imaginative. They can make the rhythms work, they can make the energy work, as well as any paid professional actor."

'The Big Empty' at Borderline Theatre, Ayr, tonight and tomorrow, tel 01292 281010.


The fruits of the SYT's summer festival courses can be seen in 'Tall Tales (and Small Wonders)' by Gerry Mulgrew at the MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling, on July 28 and 29 (tel 01786 461081) and at Citizens' Theatre, Glasgow, on August 3-5 (tel 0141 429 0022) and in Stuart Paterson's 'The Glory' at Citizens' on July 31-August 5 and His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen, on August 8-9 (tel 01224 641122).

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