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Storm in the East End

Jonathan Croall finds all hands on deck for The Tempest project.

Like Prospero's island, the school is full of noises. Circus artists, a musician, a designer, a film animator, several actors: all are playing their parts in an unusually ambitious Shakespeare venture in London's East End.

Dotted around the campus of Mulberry Girls' School in Tower Hamlets, these arts professionals are working intensively for two days with Year 10 students on The Tempest Project. It's an initiative aimed at helping the girls to understand and appreciate Shakespeare's play, but also to develop their self-confidence and teach them new skills.

The rough magic and visual richness of The Tempest offers the opportunity for many different kinds of work. Today Sara-Jean Couzins, a circus aerial artist, is focusing on the physical, exploring ideas about freedom and control of the body, and linking them to the relationship between Prospero and Ariel.

"It's loose and soft and easy, and what I'm thinking is, I'm flying," she announces to her group, moving effortlessly on a vast swing that hangs from the studio ceiling. The girls then try for themselves, learning balance, trust, self-confidence.

Over in the art room, prompted by theatre designer Annabel Lee, another group is busy making vivid costumes for the play's characters. These include a striking wedding dress and bonnet for Miranda, and an "invisible" outfit for Ariel.

For once, the girls have a whole day to create, to work with a variety of materials, and to consider the symbolic potential in the colour and design of a costume. "Once they realise the possibilities, and that it's not just about making a shirt or a dress, it takes them over," Annabel Lee observes.

In the dance studio a PE group, armed with hoops, stilts, Indian clubs, juggling balls and a unicycle, are getting the hang of some difficult skills with circus artist Julie Simpson. She shows them how to work together to create a human pyramid. "If you believe in it, you'll do it," she calls out, as one girl hesitates to climb up.

Later they explore the various sounds that can be made with the equipment, and end with a brief soundcircus performance. "I'm getting them to look at magic and illusion, and to decide which skills might be magical and which earthly, which of the land and which of the island," Julie Simpson explains.

There are other elements in the project's mosaic. A media studies group is working with animator Louise Spraggen to re-create the storm scene on film; Peter Reynolds from the Roehampton Institute is linking images and language in Shakespeare with a sports group; and in the hall the National Theatre is playing its performance project version of The Tempest (reviewed February 24).

On the previous day, some of the girls had been working on aspects of the play with actors from Theatre de Complicite and the local Half Moon Theatre, while others were encouraged by composer Ruth Brychmore to create sounds and sweet airs of their own to go with Ariel's lyrics.

Cross-curricular arts work of this nature has been a feature at Mulberry School for many years, though not previously on such a scale. But this was not just a big-bang event: the work has been building up throughout the term, with some of the professionals in regular attendance.

Jill Tuffee, head of expressive arts, believes the project has raised the students' self-esteem and confidence, as well as helped their understanding of The Tempest. But she also emphasises another benefit it's brought the girls, the vast majority of whom are from Bengali-speaking backgrounds. "Most of their families put little value on the arts, and certainly not as a career," she says. "Through this project the girls have met the professionals as people. To some extent they've become role models, and so provided access to information about careers in the arts."

Such a large-scale project can rarely be undertaken without outside money (in this case Pounds 2,000 from the Bankers Trust) and the backing of senior staff. Headteacher Marlene Robottom is fully supportive: "If the arts are to survive you have to pull in high-quality practitioners like this," she says. "If schools don't offer this enrichment, it won't happen later on."

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