Actors and their apostles

3rd November 1995 at 00:00
Jonathan Croall visits a school where the drama department is exclusively staffed by two stars of stage and screen

Stanley Park High in Sutton could be the only school in the country where the drama teachers regularly hold their departmental meetings in bed. Or alternatively in the bathroom.

The venues in question, where agendas and minutes have become a familiar presence, belong to Judy Hopton and Richard Corderey, who not only live together, but between them make up the entire drama department in the school. But that's not the only surprising element in their working lives.

For both Judy and Richard are professional actors, who have worked in the theatre, and appear in television programmes such as Love Hurts, Crime Watch, Backup and The Bill. At Stanley Park, situated in a quiet residential part of Carshalton, they practise a unique form of job sharing. This allows them to continue with their acting careers while ensuring that the drama timetable is fully covered every week.

According to headteacher David Harding, their presence brings a welcome whiff of the outside world into the school. "Their work gives us a link with reality, it gives the children some experience of a demanding working professional, " he says. That's also literally true: some of the students have got parts in radio and television as a result of the connection.

The head is pleased with the arrangement and so he should be, since the school is effectively getting two drama teachers for the price of one. On paper both Richard and Judy are employed part time; in practice, if neither of them has any acting commitments, they frequently do a whole week to-gether.

"It's wonderful to have such flexibility, it means we can always attend auditions," Judy says, during a break between lessons. "Strictly speaking there's no need for us both to come in, so if one of us feels the whole world is against us, we can stay away that day." Richard underlines the value of a break from teaching, however brief. "At the end of the day you can be absolutely exhausted, trying to spin 25 plates in the air. But if you're called away for a while, you come back re-charged, and that gives your teaching an extra buzz."

Teachers are normally isolated, he says, and find it difficult to acknowledge failure, seeing it as a sign of weakness. "We have failures constantly, but we can say to each other, 'It's not your fault, the children are giving you a hard time.' With this kind of buddy teaching you have a lot less angst, and it means you can store your energy better."

Richard was the first to join the school. Some four years ago, after working as a supply teacher with the Inner London Education Authority, he did some cover at Stanley Park, and was then asked to take drama for a term. One day he got a call from The Bill, so Judy offered to fill in as an 'instructor' on half pay, and the arrangement developed from there, with both now fully qualified.

Watching them teach, you see how their contrasting temperaments make them an effective team. Richard is large, boisterous, jokey, theatrical (students are often "Darling"), he is an extrovert performer who loves to be up there in the acting space showing how it's done.

Judy is more reflective. She sits at the side of the classroom, throwing questions at the students, getting them to think about the meaning of a line. She's more gentle and conciliatory, but also willing and able to rein Richard in when he starts to get out of hand. "I get depressed if the kids don't approve of what we're doing, and I have a very short temper," Richard confesses. "Judy, on the other hand, is an exquisitely moderating influence. She stops me going too far, she puts things in perspective, she's very good at calming it all down in the classroom."

This morning they are working together with a dozen Year 10 students, who are supposed to have learnt lines from Macbeth, and are now going to perform them. The plan is to put on a pared-down version of the play in the Charles Cryer Theatre down the road.

Both Shakespeare and learning lines, never mind acting, represent new territory for these youngsters. Most have only the haziest notion of what certain unfamiliar words mean, let alone how to interpret them on stage. Some are nevertheless moderately confident about having a go at performing, while others are nervous and frequently need prompting.

This is where Judy and Richard's professional experience comes into play, as they coax the students into performance. It's not about not being frightened, "I feel sick if I'm about to go on stage," Richard reassures one apprehensive boy. "We all get horribly frightened to death: the thing is to use that fear positively."

Such suggestions, and others about basic stage technique or the learning of lines, are taken seriously by the students, who clearly know they're getting inside information. "We're able to explain to them how it actually feels to be on a stage," says Judy, who has had plenty of experience in rep, and even done time in The Mousetrap. "I'm sure that makes a difference."

What the students are getting is not just a lesson but a performance, in which the two halves of the double act question or interrupt each other, finish one another's sentences, and generally play off each other for the benefit of their audience. "They adore the fact that there are two of us, that Sir and Miss are playing the game." Richard admits.

Part of their teaching technique is to keep the tone light even when they're making serious points. As one boy struggles with Macbeth's "Come, seeling night" speech, and the idea that "Light thickens", Richard makes a crack about trying a bit of Paul Daniels magic, while Judy adds: "There's no right or wrong way, you just have to commit yourself absolutely".

Drama is clearly a subject that the students enjoy, but the two actors have also to look for concrete results. "Because we're actors we expect excellence: if they play cool and just try and get by, we show them that's not what we want".

There's been a strong tradition of drama at Stanley Park, but since the two of them arrived here the exam grades have improved. "The results are very good, we get excellent value from them," David Harding says. "They're very good at motivating children." The teachers believe this is due as much to the nature of their subject as to their professional background. "Drama is more concerned with feelings," Judy says. "This year written exams have caused a lot of problems with children in other subjects, but here they have an outlet. "

The students have become used to seeing their teachers on the television. "You were well good last night, miss", has become a normal greeting at the start of a lesson, an acknowledgement that the two of them are engaged in what is after all just another job.

"We don't want any actors coming out of the school, there's quite enough of us already," says Richard firmly. "We have discussions about the profession of course, and we tell them the statistics. Very few will end up as pros. I think they realise there's a lot of hanging around involved, and that it's not just a question of the bright lights".

This certainly applies to those who have had a taste of the profession. Most of Year 10 were in a radio play, others have been used in crowd scenes in The Bill. A couple have even played major parts in that series though one girl turned down such an opportunity, in spite of a tempting fee of Pounds 80.

Students clearly enjoy their contact with the professionals. As for the staff, they are more than happy with a set-up which means they rarely have to cover for absence for a drama lesson. But one thing about the actors does apparently puzzle them.

"Theatre is a relatively status-free environment, but teachers here feel their status is important," Richard says. "Some of them see us as rather odd, because we're not concerned about rising through the school, or getting involved in committees. Carrots are not attractive to us. All we want is time off." David Harding might prefer the pair to be slightly more interested in the management structure, but it's clearly not a major problem for him. "Teachers are wrong to think they're the only ones who can teach," he says. "Richard and Judy have both got the knack, and I welcome anyone who can make what they're learning relevant to the real world".

Many schools employ teachers from other professions, such as musicians for example. But the Stanley Park set-up, which evolved by accident, would be hard to replicate. Yet such a partnership evidently has advantages for all concerned, as well as saving on the overheads for departmental meetings.

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