Delights of an inspired embrace

3rd November 2000 at 00:00
Brian Hayward savours the varied fare on offer at the third annual festival of the arts in Glasgow

Ask what lies behind "Inspiration", the fortnight-long arts festival for Glasgow schools that ends today, and Vanessa Paynton, the Glasgow arts development officer for children and young people, answers quite simply: "We want to help Glasgow schools to embrace the arts".

It seems to have worked, as schools have greeted the third annual festival with open arms, booking 98 per cent of the places before the arts fortnight began.

This is a fair reward for the Glasgow arts development team, who select from the widest of art forms available to schools and then go the all-important extra mile by doing everything they can to ensure the quality of the individual child's experience.

It is this disregard of the conventional "bums-on-seats", "never-mind-the-quality-feel-the-width" arts administration philosophy that distinguishes Inspiration from many another arts festival. Instead, the team wisely calculates the ratio of people to experience, in the same way that Stoppard can write of one man seeing a unicorn while the crowd saw a deer with an arrow in its head. So they schedule large-community events, such as the Children's Classic Concert by the Orchestra of Scottish Opera in the Royal Concert Hall for an audience of over 2,000 S1 and S2 pupils, but also find room in their programme for a dozen music, art, design, dance and poetry workshops where attendance is carefully limited to seven, 10, 12 or 15 children.

"Sometimes the artists spend all day with the children," explains Vanessa Paynton. "It achieves an amazing degree of intimacy. The quality of contact gives such a high standard of interaction."

A case in point is Geraldine Sinkie, who offered a day-long creative writing and design workshop in schools, working with 12 children who created their own books from scratch, writing and binding them themselves, with the artist supplying all the materials. For this the children paid pound;1, the cost of every ticket in the festival.

This simple pricing policy is one of the ways in which the arts development team strives to make the festival teacher-friendly; another is the glossy, colourful brochure - just lately educational arts programmes have started to look like holiday leaflets - where the first words are "We understand that you are very busy ..."

Another deliberate policy on the part of the festival team is to use the significant arts buildings of the city. There is disuiet in the educational arts world that one of the by-products of delegated funding is that schools are increasingly "buying in" the arts, and fewer children are setting foot in galleries, theatres and concert halls. To counter this, Inspiration has taken them into almost all the important venues, the Burrell, Citizens' Theatre, Tramway and Tron among them, as well as other notable city landmarks.

Chief among the latter was the Banqueting Hall in the Glasgow City Chambers, where the Scottish Chamber Orchestra showed the end-product of a three-month project with three primary schools.

St Thomas's in Riddrie, Saracen in Possil Park and St Mary's in Maryhill were chosen to take part, mostly because they had declared a special interest in music, each in the past year having been participants in Vanessa Paynton's arts initiative bid scheme. Called "Round-a-bout: Stories in Music", and starting with the children's own history and daily lives, the music theatre moved forward to the future, and the dreams, wishes and struggles of their adult lives.

The children had distinguished help in devising this one-off piece of music theatre in the persons of writer Gerry Loose and the Scottish composer Dee Isaacs.

Almost conventional by comparison was Big Bag, staged in Drumchapel Community Education Centre by Impact Arts, the Glasgow community arts group now in its sixth year of operation. Actress Mary Wells and director Mark Pencak have taken one of Virginia Ironside's hugely successful stories ("The Huge Bag of Worries")and made it stage work, with the interested help of the author, who watched over and contributed to the adaptation. Mary Wells is a deft and engaging performer, not least with her violin, which she plucks to accompany her songs, plays for mood music, and scrapes behind her back for her arthritis.

Centre stage is Morna, a life-sized puppet with an inoffensive face, for our purposes a P2 with five undefined problems, each a black balloon with a ghoulish face, which follow her everywhere. Even when she stows them in a large red bag, they follow her to school where, like Macbeth's murders, they push her from her stool. Morna is unable, for different reasons, to confide in her mum, dad, teacher, brother or friend. Salvation comes in the not-too-surprising form of arthritic gran, who literally keeps one worry under her hat, and punctures the other four with a handy violin bow.

The moral of the story: if you are worried, tell somebody, especially your teacher.

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