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Quite safe to talk

Jonathan Croall on a TIE company tackling social issues. We need to keep it light, light, light, because there's a lot of darkness in there."

Director Sheila Snellgrove's words are aimed at seven-year-old Natalie and her friend John - or rather, at actors Jo Loyn and Mark Laville who, for the last couple of hours, have been gradually fleshing out the two inner-city youngsters' characters from a sketchy one-page story outline.

In a spacious room at the Expressive Arts Base in Plymouth, the Rent-a-Role Theatre in Education team are busy devising a new child protection programme for Devon primary schools that is set to touch on some sensitive issues. Safe as Houses aims to enable six to eight-year-olds explore ideas about safety, trust, friendship, and the expression of feelings.

The actors are experimenting with ideas for the programme by mixing narrative with improvised dialogue, giving shape and substance to a story in which the critical moment, deliberately left unexplored, is Natalie's decision to bunk off school and spend the day in the park with Uncle Ray.

Although child abuse is not the overt theme, the team are prepared to cope with any disclosure the show might prompt. "The children can fill in their environment, their concerns and their understandings," Sheila Snellgrove says. "We hope the story gives them a safe context in which to explore their feelings, and possible strategies for coping."

The actors have prepared carefully for working in this potentially difficult area. Apart from background reading, they have - unusually for theatre workers - attended an intensive course on child protection, run for professionals by Plymouth's social services department.

The Safe as Houses programme, which will tour Devon schools in the autumn, is characteristic of Rent-a-Role's recent work, in that it involves close collaboration with an agency other than the LEA, in this case the Plymouth and Torbay Health Promotion Agency.

David Oddie, a former drama teacher who started the company in 1980, believes this is one of the main reasons why it has managed to survive at a time when other TIE companies are either disappearing, trying to cope with the sudden withdrawal of LEA funding, or being absorbed into main-house programmes.

"When the structures started to crumble, we had the advantage of having no main funding base," he says. "So we've been able to work pluralistically, to negotiate with many different agencies, rather than be dependent on one or two."

An example of this is Keepsafe, an arts and health project for the Devonport area of Plymouth, for which Rent-a-Role has collaborated with the health authority, social services, the probation service, the police, the youth service and the church, as well as the LEA and schools.

Devonport is an area of great social deprivation: unemployment is high, no less than 80 per cent of children are on free school meals, and child abuse is reckoned to be five times the national average. Schools have clearly welcomed Rent-a-Role's help in their efforts to deal with the problems children face.

"They've acted as a valuable catalyst on issues such as bullying," says Jack Griffiths, head of Marlborough Primary School, which the company has frequently visited. "Having a high-quality theatre group come in has given us a lot of confidence, and also helped the schools to work together."

Increasingly the company is being approached to do work on specific issues. With truancy, for instance, educational psychologists have pushed for their involvement to get children to talk about their fears of school.

Similarly, the police have welcomed their work on a car crime project. One policeman told David Oddie that theatre seemed to be the only thing that enabled the police to talk freely to youngsters involved in such anti-social activities.

Through its broad-based approach, Rent-a-Role has managed to attract Pounds 90,000 over the next two years for the Keepsafe project, the money coming from the Single Regeneration Budget, the health authority's joint consultative committee, and Marks Spencer.

Having its own base, the Barbican Theatre, is another plus. But the multi-agency funding can bring its problems. One is the question of ownership. "An agency may feel that if they've paid for a programme to be devised, they own it," David Oddie says. "We've had quite a debate about that."

There's also the question of evaluation, and how far it's possible to agree on outcomes; and the danger that being pulled in several directions at once could compromise the company's artistic standards. "After all we are theatre workers, not social workers," Rent-a-Role's founder emphasises.

Rent-a-Role, Barbican Theatre, Castle Street, Plymouth PLl 2NJ (O1752 267131).

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