Another face of theatre

9th February 2001 at 00:00
Last month two national theatre companies visited Scotland, bringing Shakespeare performances, workshops and even a technology bus to schools. Brian Hayward joined them

Typical, isn't it? You wait months for a national theatre company and then two come along at once - both working with Shakespeare. That happened last month when the Royal National Theatre, touring classrooms in Scotland, came within hailing distance of the Royal Shakespeare Company building on their national profile.

The RNT was travelling in a double-decker bus sponsored by Lloyds TSB and fitted with pound;250,000 of technology designed to make it a state-of-the-art teaching laboratory. During a year, the bus has three crews: for rugby, when it follows the Six Nations Championship, for music education and for theatre. For two months the RNT drives it to 40 schools all over Britain, from Cornwall to Inverness.

At Belmont Academy, Ayr, the third year pupils go upstairs and settle on the seats in front of a giant video screen. Andy Chessell, a former drama teacher who for two years has been the interactive educator for the RNT, prepares to play a CD-Rom commissioned for the tour.

"Shakespeare is for you," he tells them. "What do you know about Shakespeare?"

"Nothing!" they chorus.

"Right. We'll try the quiz."

Which portrait is of Shakespeare? Where was he born? Which of these plays didn't he write? The pupils answer the first seven correctly.

Then a light-hearted group personality test helps to select the play to be studied, Measure for Measure. The CD-Rom's "Story in a nutshell" gives a synopsis, with dramatic images of actors in significant moments of the story. Mr Chessell then asks the class to recap the plot.

"It's taken my sixth form three months to get that far," sighs head of English Joan Duncan.

The class splits up and has 10 seconds to make up Isabella's mind and give a reason. Now they know their heroine, they can cast an actress in the part. Three RNT actresses come up on the screen and with a click each says how she sees Isabella. This helps the class to decide which to audition. The class puts the actresses through their paces and then argue about their preferences.

The pupils then turn to exploring A Midsummer Night's Dream, splitting into small groups to work around the computers. At the end of the hour, they all receive a free copy of the CD-Rom to study further.

Meanwhile, in the school hall, more than 100 pupils of Standard and Higher drama and English are enjoying a two-hour workshop based on A Midsummer Night'sDream with eight RNT actors, who after lunch perform the play for them.

Joseph Smith, the project director, receives more than 200 applications for the 40 school places on the two-month tour. Each school sends a teacher to a project day at the National Theatre in London and receives an in-service training day before the company's visit.

The tour is demanding on the actors, but part of the RNT's mission to demystify theatre and make it accessible to young people.

The aim to connect with local communities also drives the Royal Shakespeare Company in its mission to make Shakespeare a link between people of all ages and walks of life, visiting prisons, adult training centres and schools around the world. Virginia Grainger, who organises the outreach work, calculates that on the current six-month tour of The Tempest, she will contact 6,000 people, excluding theatre audiences, in five countries.

Ms Grainger has spent eight years teaching in a Sheffield comprehensive, theatre training at RADA and seven years as an actress followed by freelance educational work. This is her third year of touring with the RSC. To help her, she recruits volunteers from the acting company.

Their visit to St Luke's High school in Barrhead is the RSC's third in successive years. Some of the Intermediate and Higher drama students who are waiting in Mairi Cumming's drama room for the workshop were at the "community" workshop the night before; all of them will be watching The Tempest that evening.

As workshop leader, Grainger is in her element, a repertoire of techniques at her fingertips and responsive to the pupils' work, which she constantly encourages.

"It is difficult to imagine a better-run workshop," says Nicholas Day, the actor who plays Antonio. He is drawn to the outreach work by both altruism and selfishness, speaking of the actor's "duty" to share his enthusiasm as "the honourable thing to do" and saying he loves meeting people.

He hurls himself into the improvisation with the pupils. With him is Oliver Dimsdale, playing Ferdinand. The third performer is Matthew Bailey.

Headteacher John Fitzpatrick looks on approvingly. "These specialist visits are disruptive but they are unmissable opportunities. If they light the spark in just one pupil, they're worthwhile."

At Belmont Academy, Ms Duncan has the same belief: "Today we exchange the timetable for a life-changing experience."

RNT teacher's pack, video and CD-Rom available to secondary schools, telephone Jenny McGeeney or Russell Bloomberg on 0207 898 3333

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