Carolyn O'Grady visits a multi-ethnic school that boasts a dramatic difference to the norm.
The word "playtime'' takes on an extra meaning at one London school. As well as a break between lessons, at North Westminster Community School it can just as easily mean another production in the school's own professional theatre. And this weekend, as Asian heads of state meet their European counterparts in London, it signals the start of a celebration of Asian culture based at the school.
Known as Borderlines 98, the festival seeks to encourage links between performance artists based here and in Asia through productions and workshops.
What makes this venture unique is that Studio Theatre, a respected fringe venue, is located within a large, inner-city comprehensive, offering a rich, multicultural programme to both school and community.
Since setting up in the old school gym 10 years ago, Studio Theatre has evolved into a 100-seat venue, equipped to public-licence standards.
Funded by, among others, Westminster Council, the London Arts Board and its own box-office takings, it is an independent theatre in the evenings, at weekends and during holidays, but a teaching space for the school's performing arts department during school hours. The theatre's director, Mark Pattenden, is also head of performing arts.
The benefits to the school are numerous. On top of cheap access to professional performances it also has a direct line to work experience for students in box-office management, ushering, catering, lighting and props. Student actors get a professional venue and a wide-ranging audience.
Dance is compulsory at the school for all boys and girls up to 14 - an arrangement accepted by the large number of Muslim parents. Although a high proportion of the students have refugee status and 70 mother-tongues are spoken, performing arts courses are immensely popular, with over 100 in Year 10 opting for GCSE drama. A theatre technology option will soon be offered to Year 10 students leading to a BTEC in stage technology instead of GCSE technology. The course will include placements in West End theatres.
Three years ago the theatre identified Asian performance arts as a neglected area and began establishing a national role for itself as one of the few venues which nurtures artists from this part of the world.
"Borderlines 98 is the culmination of the work we've been developing with Asian artists," says theatre co-ordinator Beth Cinamon. "It is the first time we've brought artists from overseas." These include director Hideki Hayashi, founder of Terra Arts Factory in Tokyo, and performer and photographer An Hong, a lecturer at the Central Academy of Art and Design in Beijing.
Artists also become involved in the school curriculum. "Our programming focus is always linked to the arts curriculum of the school; wherever possible we programme companies which do workshops or teaching sessions," says Mark Pattenden.
One such company is the UK-based BiMa Dance Company, directed by Malaysian-born Pit Fong Loh, who is playing a key role in Borderlines 98 as an organiser and participant at the workshops. She takes Eastern philosophy and incorporates it into Western dance techniques, while Hayashi will introduce Fari Fari, a method of body training that resembles Japanese martial arts, and Hong will use his Chinese medicine background to explore psychological, physical and environmental influences on a performance.
Also collaborating in the festival is the Chinese Arts Centre in Manchester where the programme will include exhibitions of visual arts and workshops for schools on Chinese Opera-style make-up and Chinese medicine.
Studio Theatre, North Westminster Community School:0171 224 8421. Chinese Arts Centre, Manchester: 0161 832 7271