Putting a little play back into drama

Julie Morrice watches school-worn teachers become stage-struck by the thrill of the theatre

Take 100 drama teachers and advisers from all corners of Scotland. Scatter them throughout the labyrinthine stages and studios of the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow. Introduce half a dozen drama specialists to lead a variety of workshops. And what do you have?

Officially it is called the Drama Network annual conference, but that is a dry title for a day which encompasses so much enjoyment and exploration.

"We have suggested tinkering with the format over the years," says John Turner, adviser for aesthetic subjects at the City of Edinburgh, "but the delegates are very keen to stick with the workshop-based conference."

So the speeches are kept to a minimum, no one lingers over lunch and the buzz on the stairs and in the corridors is all about the latest drama game or unexpected ways into Shakespeare's texts. This is a conference which is all about taking part: falling asleep in the back row is simply not an option.

On the Citizens main stage, drama writer and trainer Jerome Monahan was exploring A Midsummer Night's Dream with 15 teachers. His first two principles are that the play is a script not a text and that "you cannot be too playful with Shakespeare". Performing a one-minute version of the comedy showed just how much fun you can have with Shakespearean language and characters without having to drag a class through every nuance of the story. And how the teachers enjoyed it, throwing themselves (sometimes literally) into the dramatic fray.

Teaching can be a stiff mantle when the power and excitement of the medium gets buried under the daily stuff of school life, but perhaps it is particularly felt in drama. In these workshops, you could see teachers remembering what it was that attracted them to their job in the first place. Something of the stage-struck teenager seemed to glow around all of them as they slipped into roles as queens and courtiers or got fervently involved in drama games.

The June conference brought in an impressive group of workshop leaders. James Brining, artistic director of the TAG Theatre Company, offered a practical examination of the personal and the political in drama. Up in the attic-like rehearsal rooms, Deborah Richardson-Webb of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama explored the way drama works, using Angela Carter's story The Company of Wolves as inspiration.

Next door, freelance director Ben Twist guided a group through the complexities and possibilities of a pivotal scene from Liz Lochhead's drama Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, showing how the demands of professional staging (such as a limited number of actors and short rehearsal time) can throw up revealing interpretations of a text which many pupils find difficult to penetrate.

"Teachers and pupils don't get access to the conceptualisers of theatre pieces," says Mr Twist. "They have to do 20th century Scottish drama for Higher, but most of them don't get a chance to speak to the people who are putting these plays on stage."

His solution has been to create a highly informative website exploring the process behind his recent production of Sunset Song. It includes a rehearsal diary and interviews with the director, actors, designers and adaptor. Funded by Learning and Teaching Scotland, it offers an insight into the creative processes and the decisions and dilemmas behind a particular production of the script.

If fun was what the conference delegates were after, the place to be was the Citizens Stalls theatre where Kim Bergsagel of the Edinburgh Puppet Company put on a shadow puppetry workshop which showed how the medium encourages enthusiastic expression of ideas and emotions.

Lorna Auld, the principal teacher of drama at Forres Academy in Moray, was delighted by the possibilities of puppetry. "I came looking for something to use with special needs pupils, thinking puppets were a way of expressing things without using language, but I realise it will also be a brilliant medium for my S1-S3 group. They could use puppets in assemblies, where they are exploring things like moral issues. It means they don't have to act in front of the rest of the school, which they are sometimes a bit shy of doing."

Drama departments in Scottish schools are small, typically comprising two or three members of staff, so a national teachers' network can be a lifeline for sharing concerns and ideas and reducing feelings of professional isolation. The issue of the moment is the assessment criteria for 5-14 and Higher Still. The network, through both meetings and its newsletter, offers a forum for debate on such problems.

With numbers attending the annual conference increasing year on year, and representation from all areas of the country, the network is also valued by Learning and Teaching Scotland.

"We appreciate the specialist advice the network can give us because we don't get it anywhere else," says Alan Starritt of Learning and Teaching Scotland.

Suggestions for plays that teachers would like to see published or republished, and for support and study pack topics, are welcomed, he says.

Drama Network, contact Alan Starritt, Learning and Teaching Scotland, Gardyne Road, Dundee DD5 1NY, fax 01382 443646 or e-mail a.starritt@LTScotland.comSunset Song on tour August 27-November 2 www.svtc.org.ukresourcessunsetsongEdinburgh Puppet Company, 81 Great Junction Street, Leith, Edinburgh EH6 5HZ, tel 0131 554 8923e-mail admin@edinburgh-puppet.co.uk

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