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Prepared to play their part;Arts

A theatre group is taking drama into schools in an attempt to raise children's political awareness, writes Brian Hayward

TAG theatre company is marking the creation of the Scottish parliament with a serious and imaginative three-year programme of plays and projects designed to increase political awareness among young people.

Director James Brining says: "Scotland is on the brink of the biggest change in its political history for almost 300 years. It's a moment artists should engage with. We must give our audiences an opportunity to evaluate and emotionally connect with what devolution means."

His rolling programme of political education has just started, with an eight-week tour of primary schools from Glasgow to Inverness (fully booked) of Julius Caesar.

The production breaks new ground for TAG - for the first time, children are actors as well as audience. To secure this increased involvement, the TAG team spends the day in the school. In the morning the actors work separately with the three classes (P4, 5 and 6), explaining the central ideas, introducing key words such as "ambition" and "honourable", devising crowd chants to welcome Caesar to the market place, rehearsing the lucky ones who get the solo parts of messengers and conspirators. And, most particularly, they rehearse the "volume control" for the battle scenes.

In the afternoon comes the performance. The TAG team begins by revising what they have done in the morning. Good teacher practice this, and the children are relaxed and comfortable. But suddenly their welcoming chants are angrily shouted down by one of their erstwhile tutors with: "Get you home, you idle creatures!" and their first experience of Shakespeare is being in it.

From then on, they are marshalled and coached by the four hard-working actors through an hour-long version of the whole play, battle scenes and all, helped only by sonorous percussion, touches of costume, a handful of props, a pedestal and a dais.

For the children, it is an hour that bridges theatre and drama experiences, as they sit or stand, and watch the actors or their schoolfellows, occasionally taking a vocal part in the story themselves as market-people or soldiers.

James Brining is investigating the range of audience response. He is particularly interested in increased participation of standing, rather than seated, spectators, comparing them with football crowds. He also says arts companies have a duty to help foster a sense of responsibility in children.

In the free-fall moments of improvised drama, the actors and children are, as Mr Brining says, "very much on the line". At Arden Primary in the Carnwadric area of Glasgow, class teacher Evelyn Clokey has nothing but admiration for the day's work, comparing it to a visit a few years ago from Scottish Opera.

"This morning none of these children had even heard of William Shakespeare. They've been amazingly well behaved. Some of them are very young, but they've got a lot from it," she says.

The "surprise" element in the TAG programme has been cleverly supported by the school. The children have been given no warning of TAG's visit, nor of what each has done in the morning workshop. To enter fully into the spirit of the exercise, the teachers have not yet seen the resource pack. This dramatic "unexpectedness" continues until the last moment of the performance, when the children are prompted to make - or not - an individual response.

The excellent resource pack, by Louise Gallagher, will be welcome to teachers who want to use the stimulus of the TAG visit to develop pupil understanding of the play, the Roman period or contemporary politics.

A special twilight performance for teachers takes place at Royston primary school, Glasgow, at 4pm on Thursday May 13. Tel: 0141 552 4949

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