All their world's a stage

18th January 2008 at 00:00
Fans of reality TV are being lured into the theatre by Mark Wheeller, who uses true stories to inspire young playwrights.

To inspire others I fall back on ideas that inspired me. When I was a young teacher I saw a play called From Your Loving Brother Albert by Roy Nevitt, which tells the true story of a 16-year-old boy's life and eventual death in the First World War.

It was particularly shocking and moving because all the words in the play were taken, verbatim, from letters written by the real Albert to a relative. When I was watching the play, I was also visualising the young soldier writing from the trenches. It was a highly original way of animating his letters.

Reality theatre is a direct and easily accessible way to motivate pupils who are all familiar with the reality TV world of such programmes as Big Brother.

I decided to emulate this documentary style of playwriting using contemporary stories, and pupils can do the same through developing scripts dealing with real-life events.

The tragic true tale of Dan Nolan is one I transformed into a one-act play. Dan was a local boy from Hamble in Southampton who was 14 when he went missing in January 2002. Twenty-one months after his disappearance, his remains were found in a remote pool in Swanage, Dorset.

The Missing Persons Helpline receives more than 100,000 calls every year, so sadly there is likely to be a similar story wherever you teach. At the moment, the sad, ongoing case of Madeleine McCann echoes a lot of the issues raised.

Now many schools use my Dan Nolan play as a coursework component in the Edexcel GCSE drama exam. Its direct approach motivates Year 11 pupils, which in turn raises their grades.

We are now rarely asked: "Why can't we do a comedy?" They respect the words they are reading because they know they are rooted in reality.

We rehearsed the first production of this play with the knowledge that Dan's family would soon be coming to watch, which raised the actors' game like nothing else.

I used the same technique to motivate and improve performances in an entirely different project celebrating 70s glam rock. I contacted a group of fans from the official David Bowie website and invited them to watch the play.

Again, the sense of performing to real fans gave the pupils a reason to raise the bar. Their performances were the best they had ever given.

We also provide GCSE pupils with the opportunity to create their own reality plays using a selection of accounts from Empty Cradles, Margaret Humphrey's book, which describes child migrants "betrayed" by Britain.

Our pupils, inspired by the primary source material, produced highly-charged presentations. The confidence they gain in their own writing cascades into their final performances.

By exploring the issues raised in these "real" plays and stories, pupils are able to move beyond their own experience and develop deeper and more meaningful work. It not only inspires them, but it also raises their grades in this subject.

Mark Wheeller is a playwright and part-time head of drama at Oaklands Community School in Southampton. His plays can be found at


- Choose a text that inspires you - it is more likely to inspire others.

- Explore local events as opposed to national stories.

- Invite local people to share their experiences with pupils.

- Invite people who have a vested interest in the subject to watch performances.

- Get pupils to edit verbatim accounts and adapt them into plays.

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