A touch of class at Fringe

20th August 2010 at 01:00
School-inspired stand-up and shows put on by teachers and pupils at this year's Edinburgh Festival

Catherine Semark learnt little German during her German exchange trip. She did, however, pick up valuable lessons in how to bunk off school without punishment.

Such untimetabled lessons form the basis of Catherine Semark's Curriculum, performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year.

Between headline-grabbing performances from sell-out comedians and renowned actors, a number of productions inspired by teachers are also appearing.

Some are school productions; some are written or directed by teachers. Others, such as Ms Semark's stand-up routine, highlight the comedy inherent in education.

For example, she describes the way in which her German exchange visit taught her the power of brutal honesty. "If Kent is the garden of England, then Maidstone is its compost heap," her German penfriend said of her host town.

Ms Semark was quick to pick up the power of such directness. Caught bunking off a French lesson, she looked her teacher directly in the eye and said: "To be honest, I couldn't face your lesson." The teacher was so nonplussed that she let her recalcitrant pupil get away with it.

And a holiday spent pain-stakingly constructing a model galleon for a homework project taught her another significant lesson. "All the other girls had spent their holidays going to parties, and just turned up with a box with some matchsticks stuck on it," she said. "I realised what a loser I was.

"A lot of the most formative things I learnt at school weren't things that took place in lessons. They were the things outside the classroom."

It is a similar search for extra- curricular education that has led Toby Percival, classics teacher at Shrewsbury School, to bring 25 pupils to Edinburgh this year. He believes they will gain valuable skills from attempting to persuade an already overwhelmed Fringe audience to buy tickets for their production of David Hare's Racing Demon.

"It can be very daunting going up to complete strangers and saying, `Hello, this is our show - are you interested?'" Mr Percival said.

"But, because the theatres here are often quite intimate, the actors can see people they've persuaded to come and see their show. There are two and a half thousand shows, and they've persuaded Joe Bloggs to see theirs. That gives them greater satisfaction than just performing to parents or people they know."

"It's a school play with knobs on," agrees Phil Tong, director of drama at City of London Freemen's School. Pupils from the Surrey secondary will perform The Typhoid Marys at the festival. Written by Mr Tong, the play tells the true story of women locked away in a 19th-century psychiatric hospital because they were carriers of typhoid, then a fatal disease.

"I tend not to write school dramas," said Mr Tong. "I wanted to stretch the students beyond just doing Grange Hill mark II. It makes them work harder, because they've got to reach out for something."

Mr Tong is not the only drama teacher to use the festival as a showcase for his out-of-school alter ego. Emma Merton, a newly qualified English and drama teacher at Bristol Brunel Academy, is also demonstrating that those who can, do - at least during the school holidays.

Ms Merton is producing and directing Alma Mater, an original play about four university friends who are reunited at a funeral and forced to reflect on the paths their own lives have taken. She found her teaching experience particularly useful when directing scenes in which her characters are 18-year-old freshers. "It's about knowing their posture, what they laugh about and joke about," she said.

However, the play's themes of disillusionment and thwarted ambition are directly opposed to the work she does in the classroom.

"A teacher's job is to give them those aspirations," she said. "Make them believe they can achieve. It's not our job to think, `Oh, in five years' time you won't have done what you want to do.'

"I'll be working with lots of Year 7s next year, seeing how their aspirations change from when they're 11 to when they're 18. It's a huge journey, that period of time."

It is, in fact, exactly this journey that Ms Semark hopes to capture in her show. "During a school hockey lesson, a man stuck his penis in a hole in the hedge," she said. "Our teacher told us to rise above it and play on. That taught me a lesson for life. If life metaphorically sticks its penis through the hedge, you rise above it and play on."


Staged schools

Other school-related shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Azincourt, performed by Willington School

A cast of 10- to 13-year-olds from south London perform an original play about Henry V's baggage boys at the Battle of Agincourt.

- Circus of Shadows, performed by Magdalen College School Pupils from the Oxford school "delve into the shadiest recesses of villainy" in this exploration of theatrical history.

- No Child ., performed by Nilaja Sun

A one-woman show highlighting Nilaja Sun's experiences as an impecunious teaching artist in New York schools.

- Find Love Make Love Die, performed by Bleak Heart Four students are in confinement, as their infected classmates run rampage across the school grounds. A coming-of-age tale dealing with sex, isolation and identity.

- Amoeba to Zebra, performed by Being 747

A biology lesson in musical form. The story of evolution told through 14 songs, along with visual effects and "really wild" props.

- The Girl in the Yellow Dress, performed by Citizens Theatre

Set in a Parisian school, the play explores the relationship between a beautiful English teacher and her French-Congolese pupil.

- At the Broken Places, performed by Savio(u)r Theatre Company The teachers and pupils of fictional Sierra High School stage a theatrical version of the massacre that occurred at their school 20 years earlier.

  • Original headline: A touch of class at the Fringe

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