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Secrets in the wings

BACKSTAGERS: A TEACHER'S GUIDE TO PRACTICAL BACKSTAGE SKILLS, By David Griffiths, Collins Pounds 39.50.

Good art teachers know the importance of framing pupils' paintings, even if only with a modest backing of sugar paper. By displaying art work to its best advantage, they are tacitly valuing their pupils' creativity. This is surely true for all the arts.

In drama, attention paid to the conventions of stage presentation, by making sure performances take place in a designated area, for example, shows a similar respect. Conversely, an improvisation casually acted out among piles of broken chairs is like the child's drawing stuck up any old how.

David Griffiths demonstrates how simple it is to raise the status of young people's dramas by observing a few straightforward rules. A drama teacher with all the practices of the professional theatre at his fingertips, Griffiths shows how school halls may be converted into exciting, flexible theatres and how the basic rules of stage management and technical control can be incorporated into drama in schools.

Backstagers is a comprehensive guide to what its author calls "production literacy". There are chapters on design, stage management, lighting and sound, masks, make-up, costumes and properties. Each is supported with diagrams and drawings together with contextualising references and there is a comprehensive appendix covering such matters as health and safety.

Technical explanations appear in a glossary and also alongside the main text when they are needed. Most useful are the photocopiable pages, including plotting sheets and summaries of production procedures, which will enable pupils to collect a handy source of reference.

Griffiths shows how the differentiated roles of those working backstage help a performance run smoothly. It has often puzzled me why proven theatre practices like the use of a "book" by the deputy stage manager to cue a performance are so rarely used in school.

Less successful are chapters on directing and writing. Although these contain a number of tips - about the layout of scripts, for example, and the organising of rehearsals - they only touch the surface of these more complex aspects of production.

Backstagers is not cheap. However, David Griffiths's practical ring file deserves a place on the drama office shelf. If nothing else, those pupils who discover they can achieve more in drama behind the scenes than in front of them will find it an invaluable resource.

David Hornbrook is arts inspector for the London borough of Camden

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