Drama with digits

29th November 2002 at 00:00
Maths and theatre are not subjects that easily combine, but a production company has found a way and the results are a resounding success, says Hilary Wilce

There is a crisis in the Land of Numeracy. Queen Doreen used to be great at juggling numbers. Every year she easily won the annual mental maths dual which allowed her to keep reigning over her kingdom. But this year the evil Number Cruncher, a huge reptilian creature that breathes fire and blows snot bubbles, has hatched a dastardly plot to overthrow her...

The infants of Goldthorne Park Primary School, Wolverhampton, are enraptured. Their eyes follow every move of Queen Doreen, in her red-checked trousers and plastic tiara, and of the Number Cruncher, in his green boiler suit and hairy monster slippers.

They giggle at the jokes, sing the Numbers Song with enthusiasm and shoot their hands up whenever a sum is posed, which is frequently, because Go Figure is that unlikely thing - a maths drama with the underlying message that numbers are fun, relevant and can even (in a land not so far away, in a time not so long ago) save your bacon.

Go Figure is the product of Theatre Works, which is the brainchild of actors and writers Ian Billings and Stephanie Dale. The company offers primary schools plays based on English, maths, geography and science, which are closely tailored to the learning objectives of key stages 1 and 2. In Go Figure there is adding and subtracting, rounding up and down, and an episode about the change you would get if you took 10p out of pound;10. There are simple fractions, number lines, triangles, circles and squares. Also - for good measure - there is a little bit of home psychology. If I trust in myself, muses Queen Doreen, summoning strength for her final battle, my brain will do the rest.

The plays are perfectly geared to the age group. They are fast-paced and funny, with lots of character changes, and the number-work is woven so skilfully into the heart of the story that the children appear to have no idea they are doing maths. What they really loved, said one teacher, was the way the story kept repeating things and going back over the same problems with exactly the same numbers.

That's because Gale, aged 28, and Billings, 35, are experienced enough to know exactly what they are doing. Billings is a pantomime writer, who has written for the BBC's Chuckle-Vision and the Teletubbies. He has performed extensively as an actor and runs his own theatre school.

Gale worked with youth groups after studying for a degree in theatre and media drama at Cardiff. She has also worked on educational fund-raising and is now writing plays for Radio 4. The pair met at a playwriting course at Birmingham University, and have taken their plays into more than 50 schools since they started Theatre Works last January.

Schools are keen to book them, says Gale, because of the plays' curriculum links. Time and other pressures on teachers also mean they prefer the theatre to come to them, rather than taking classes to see productions, she says. Go Figure has been particularly popular because maths and drama is an unusual combination and the chance to enhance numeracy with something colourful and entertaining is rare.

Theatre Works' Christmas show this year is Alice in Numberland, which features encounters with such characters as the White Rabbit, the Dormouse, and the Caterpillar. Alice also meets Tweedleone and Tweedletwo, who do a lot of counting, forwards and backwards. Maths is used to advance the storyline, and help Alice to get in and out of Numberland.

The writing workshops have also taken off. Billings and Gale's use of props and drama exercises get groups of older primary pupils and secondary school students to talk about what makes a good story, develop events and characters, and start writing creatively. The Wolverhampton-based duo is strictly low-tech - without even a van to its name - but has performed all over the West Midlands and would consider travelling further afield, possibly even working with groups of schools. Billings says he would also be interested in hearing from teachers of other key stages, who want to inject some fun and drama into their maths classes.

Theatre Works plays also include Go Figure 2 for KS2 maths. Plays cost pound;300 and writing workshops pound;200Theatre Works, 18 Upper Street, Tettenhall, Wolverhampton WV6 8QG. Tel: 07761 277 634 (Ian Billings) or 07760 248842 (Stephanie Dale) Email: ianbillings@yahoo.co.uk

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