Fighting to have a say in things

11th October 1996 at 01:00
Reva Klein visits an Essex school for boys with emotional and behavioural difficulties which has its own drama specialist. Welcome to Fatso's Pizza Hut. Here comes Stringbean the waiter to take the orders, as he dodges smilingly murderous punches and kicks from his heavily-padded boss. Fatso lets the guests have it, too, whenever the mood takes him, which is on average every two minutes.

Martin comes up to the table serenading the masochistic guests with his guitar just to smooth things over a bit. Things settle down until the spaghetti finally arrives and the customers proceed to throw plates at each other, the waiter spills spaghetti over everyone and a woman falls off her chair.

Great fun, Fatso's is.

It's just one comedy scenario in the repertoire of Pat Douglas, who until the end of last term was drama teacher at Heath School in Colchester, Essex. While drama work like this is not out of the ordinary in common or garden secondary schools, Heath is not your ordinary school. It's a school for boys with emotional and behavioural difficulties. And it's an unusual EBD school that has a drama specialist and teaches it as a discrete subject.

In the seven years that Pat Douglas spent at Heath, she not only introduced drama to the curriculum for all pupils, but managed, with the support of Essex County Council's drama adviser, to get the school to offer drama at GCSE level.

Introducing drama to these children was no mean feat. Boys come to the school because of violent behaviour and criminality along with physical problems like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, dyslexia and epilepsy. Many have been excluded from mainstream schools and will have never done any drama work before. The only way some of these lads know of expressing themselves is through violence and aggression.

"The first term we did drama was chaos," recalls Ms Douglas. "The kids had no idea how to play games. It was very challenging for them as well as for me." Within one term, however, she was able to turn things around and just before breaking up for Christmas, her drama group put on a panto. "I felt we had achieved a breakthrough."

Watching the boys doing their standard drama exercises, you can understand what a breakthrough it must have been. Some of them work hard to control their aggressive or withdrawn behaviour in order to take part in what are undeniably fun routines. "We always do improvisation in our workshops, and we establish a rhythm that they are asked to work to. Because they make it up as they go along, nothing is ever the same."

While insisting that she is a drama teacher and not a therapist, working in this way has, in her words, "a humanising and socialising effect". It demands of the boys co-operation, being attuned to what the others are doing and thinking and how they are moving. They are given the responsibility of negotiating who is to take what role. Sometimes things get tricky. "It's not unusual to have fist fights to work out roles."

I was spared that particular negotiating ploy the day I observed them. The key stage 3 class came into the drama studio and set about deciding who would play who. Neal was clear about wanting to be the "lady" and clearly loved getting trussed up in his dress, complete with enormous bosom and hat. He seemed to bask in the inevitable teasing of the other boys, giving an age-old rendition of a woman being cuddled by turning his back to us and wrapping his arms around himself as he wiggled his hips. We all howled.

For Pat, cross-dressing in drama is a breaking down of male cultural taboos and is "good for the boys. I encourage them to do it." The same is true of interacting with each other through touching and rolling around on the floor together. In a tightly-run boys' EBD school, that kind of contact can be positively liberating.

Each scene is worked through and then given a post-mortem, led by Pat and contributed to by most of the group. Ultimately, four are put together. In the Year 9 group, six of the seven boys were planning to do drama for GCSE.

"You can do different things inside these four walls that you can't do out there," says Richard. Neal, the erstwhile "lady," adds: "It gets rid of all your anger, in a funny way."

Stringbean, whose nickname needs no explanation once you've clapped eyes on him, says: "In here, you can make a fool of yourself in a way that you'd get a bashing for out there. You also find out that you like someone in here that you might not have liked out there."

Pat has been determined throughout to run the drama for the boys, not as a showcase for the rest of the school. "We sometimes have staff in to see the work. But we also have some very private work that we don't show. One exercise we did was on a haunted house that gave vent to a lot of violent feelings. It would have been difficult for others to understand that being violent in a play is different to real violence."

Pat Douglas is now taking her expertise with her to another EBD school in Norfolk where she will work again through this simple but most sophisticated of art forms.

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