Farewell to a noble charioteer

9th May 1997 at 01:00
After eight years with the educational theatre group TAG, Tony Graham is leaving Glasgow. By Brian Hayward

The news that Peter Pan, opening tonight at the Tramway in Glasgow, will be Tony Graham's last production for TAG before he leaves to direct the Unicorn Theatre in London will sadden the Scottish theatre community. But it will devastate the many teachers who have, over the past few years, come to trust in the integrity and educational awareness of Graham's work for schools.

Theatre companies such as TAG tend to take on the identity of their directors. For at least 20 years, TAG has been a two-horse chariot, one steed heading for the classroom, the other eye-balling mainstream theatre, and it is fair to say that in Graham TAG had at last found its rightful charioteer.

Coming to TAG gave Tony Graham the chance of escaping from what he calls "the historical trap of the deep treadmarks of theatre in education (TIE) in England" (he had been a drama advisory teacher in London, and was steeped in the work of, among others, Dorothy Heathcote, Gavin Bolton and Ken Robinson). Indeed, he confesses to having been "drunk with freedom" at the emptiness he found of the educational landscape in Glasgow. It comes as a surprise to be reminded that, in 1989, no one offered school workshops, which have nowadays become so commonplace.

In this as well as other ways - in particular the way the company has developed the quality of its resource material for teachers - TAG has been a benchmark, an "absolutely Scottish" model for other TIE companies. But to imply that Tony Graham ever saw himself as a "leader of the pack" would be wrong. No one has done more in recent years to promote TIE across the board in Scotland.

Over the years he has set up mutual self-help associations of drama workers and teachers, devised workshops for teachers to explore the latest ideas in educational theatre, as, for example, Boal's forum theatre, and held discussions with TIE and youth theatre groups. His motive he explains in the words of Othello: "It is the cause".

There is, he admits, a lifetime's work to be done in theatre and education. But for all of TAG's 30 years' existence, dedicating the group to educational work only has been an unaffordable luxury. Money needed to be made elsewhere in order to survive. "And anyway," Graham adds wickedly, "why toil away if only The Times Ed comes to see you? Graham "hit a groove" with the staging of Sunset Song. Teachers welcomed the help, school parties and others filled theatres from Saltcoats to Elgin, and in 1993 it played at the Assembly Hall to become the toast of the Edinburgh International Festival.

When excited critics asked him what TAG would do next, Graham enjoyed watching their eyes glaze over as he told them about Desert Story, a play for individual classes in struggling Glasgow primary schools. But the story neatly sums up the current TAG model of beat-the-drum main theatre and unsung TIE work. It is a model that he thinks will soon be followed by English TIE companies, now that their funding has been eroded.

Although Graham has often sought out new writers, for his last production he returned to Stuart Paterson, a major children's theatre playwright. In fact, Stuart Paterson started as a "new" writer for TAG in 1980 - he was given his first break by director Ian Wooldridge - since when he has gone from strength to strength. His collaboration with Tony Graham on Peter Pan, which they are both "passionate" about, should prove fascinating.

The two researched the sources of the story, and found them in improvised games that the author JM Barrie used to play with his children - Barrie played the part of Captain Hook, "just like a drama teacher, or a good parent", says Graham. That gave Graham and Paterson the concept, and the idea of children participating became the key to the whole production; it has been designed as a "family show" for the over-sevens.

Don't expect whimsy - "Barrie is a genius, and he is against whimsy," declares Graham - and any post-Freudian interpretations are your own. "Look into this play as you would look into a pool of clear water. There are shapes; make of them what you will," is Graham's advice. From almost anyone else, that would be a director's standard evasion; from Graham, it is the voice of the theatre educator, disinterestedly empowering the individual imagination.

After eight successful years, Graham leaves Glasgow with mixed feelings. The city he believes to be "one of the most fascinating and vital cities in Europe" has been good to him. Would he ever consider returning, I ask him.

"As soon as someone asks me," he answers. A comforting reply, but you get the feeling that Graham would go almost anywhere for "the cause".

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