Theatre can lead the way to serious language studies for some students. Kevin Berry looks at the possibilities.
During their recent tour of Cyrano de Bergerac, the European Theatre Company received a note from a teacher in Guildford praising a performance which had prompted a number of her students to opt for French as an A-level choice.
A number of theatre companies now specialise in foreign language productions for the school and college market and performance standards are high. Their visits have raised the status of modern languages in the eyes of students and productions are now being planned for the very youngest age ranges.
Cyrano de Bergerac was quality theatre, an example of the European Theatre Company's stated policy of artistic excellence and, for me, the production fulfilled two rigorous critical requirements: the actor playing Cyrano, Oliver Boyet, made no attempt to emulate the acting of Gerard Depardieu and furthermore his nose looked utterly convincing!
Edmond Rostand's story was delivered entirely in French using actors whose mother tongue is French. With all European Theatre productions, audiences are given a copy of the script in the performance language well before they are due to see a play, and the only concession to English audiences is that the story is reduced in length to about an hour. I watched a performance at the French Institute in Kensington and sat among French people who were loving it.
Immediately following the play students have the chance to meet and talk with the actors in the languages being presented on stage. It is informal, it is not in front of teachers - just the actors in costume but out of character.
French-Canadian actor Craig Nightingale told me that the conversations very much depend on the audience but the value, as he sees it, is having students talking with French speakers who are not teachers, ". . . and we never correct them, that's not the point. Some make mistakes but the point is that they communicate".
Jennie Graham started the European Theatre Company three years ago. She decides the story, taking into account what teachers are asking for, and then she auditions the actors. She has an enviable amount of experience in theatre throughout Europe, as has her husband Adam Roberts who has written and directed for the company. Future plans include an autumn tour of Goethe's Faust, in German, and next spring a production of Ionesco's La lecon. Long term plans may involve Spanish productions and French plays for younger age ranges.
Later this year the very tiniest children, four to seven-year-olds, will have the chance to see Attrape-Couleurs presented by the Theatre La Manivelle. Their tour is being arranged by Dual Control International, based in Chatham, which has made a specialism of scouring the continent for companies and bringing them over to this side of the Channel. When members of Theatre Jeune Public of Strasbourg were in England with Mowgli - L'Enfant Loup a couple of years ago, a tour arranged by Dual Control, their production was enthusiastically received and generated a huge amount of interest in French language theatre.
A detailed teacher's pack is in preparation for Attrape-Couleurs, devised in conjunction with some Kent teachers. It is very much a bi-lingual performance but with the key words in French. Attrape-Couleurs will return to these shores next spring and Dual Control are also planning to bring over a French adaptation of the Peter Pan story next year. Peter Pan is being devised by Andre Pomarat who was the artistic director for Mowgli.
A participatory experience is offered by Bac to Bac, a multi-lingual team of actors experienced with language-based performance programmes and active workshop sessions. They have a workshop module called Tele Contact, an 80-minute session in French in which students and Bac to Bac actors create a television prog-ramme and the programme is recorded for the students to keep. The company has been involved with Language and European Awareness Days and was recently used by Sunderland Careers Service for a Jobs for Europe programme.
For other sources, keep a look out for companies brought over by the French Institute in Kensington and the Delegation Culturelle Francaise in Manchester.
* Contacts: European Theatre Company: 0171 581 2010 Dual Control Theatre: 01634 819141 Bac to Bac Theatre: 0181 340 9012 Delegation Culturelle Francaise: 0161 273 1523