The play's virtually the thing

Children from two continents come together for drama online. Chris Johnston reports

On a grey Monday morning in Wimbledon hundreds of Year 4 pupils streamed into the Polka Children's Theatre. They were taking part in WebPlay, an innovative project that brought theatre and the Internet together, allowing pupils to meet and communicate with actors online and find out what goes into getting a production on stage in the weeks preceding the performance.

As well as getting an insight into the world of theatre and developing ICT skills, pupils were able to work with children in Los Angeles schools and develop mini-dramas set in each other's country.

Thanks to software company Oracle's Think.com online community, the pupils could learn more about the two cities via video conferences. Working in small groups, they devised their own five-minute plays. They were able to ask questions of the professionals from Polka, in rehearsals for Star Gazer, a show specially commissioned for the project. They could also talk to their trans-Atlantic counterparts and get background detail for their own plays.

After four weeks, the London pupils got to see the Polka performance. Star Gazer is about two schoolgirls who slip back a century in time and touches on issues such as bullying. The girls navigate their way back to the 21st century by using a GameBoy. A question-and-answer session followed the show and the Polka team visited each school for an all-day workshop to help pupils polish their own plays. The mini-dramas were filmed with a camcorder and posted on the website for feedback from their overseas classmates. After the London workshops the Polka performers flew to Los Angeles to go through the same process there.

Graham Walker, whose Year 4 class at Coley primary in Reading took part in WebPlay, was interested in the initiative because it "made use of the Internet for real, rather than pretend, reasons".

His 23 pupils reacted very positively, eagerly awaiting the twice-weekly 60 to 90-minute WebPlay sessions which replaced ICT and literacy lessons, with many working on the website at home. The teachers have also got to know their American counterparts well: "We e-mail regularly and talk about what's going on," Walker says.

WebPlay offers a clever way to hit many National Curriculum objectives, including ICT skills, group working, geography and communication skills, and it strikes a balance between the virtual and the real world experiences.

The multi-faceted project was the brainchild of Sydney Thornbury, who grew up in LA but lives in the UK. She had became interested in the potential of technology in the performing arts and realised that it could be used to enhance the experience of live theatre for children.

WebPlay cost about pound;110,000; after a successful pilot last year, it was enlarged to include 17 classes and more than 1,000 children in each country. Primary schools from Merton, Southwark, Harrow and Reading participated with schools from LA.

Organisations that helped finance and run the project included the Southwark Education Business Alliance, the Merton Education Business Partnership, Harrow Education and Leisure, Arts and Business and the Esmee Fairbairn Charitable Trust. Go to: WebPlay (www.webplay.org); Polka Children's Theatre (www.polkatheatre.com); Think.com (www.think.com)

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