Five days to makea show that sings

14th August 1998 at 01:00
Aberdeen's first performing arts summer school was a race against time, reports Judy Mackie

It is Monday morning in the assembly hall of St Machar Academy, Aberdeen. A group of more than 80 participants in the city's first performing arts summer school are waiting to be told what to do. Little do they know that at this particular event such an attitude could have them waiting around until Friday.

Fortunately, it is not too long before they realise no one is going to issue precise instructions. For many, this is their first experience of creative angst - the awfulwonderful realisation that what happens during the rest of the week is entirely up to them.

By Friday evening, they are expected to stage a public performance involving drama, creative writing, video, art, dance and music. Yet they have no script, brief, choreography or score.

They have guidelines, of course. And mentors - some of the best they could hope for. Writer and playwright Tom McGrath, composer Eddie Maguire, painter Steven Campbell, actor and director Denis Agnew, dance development officer Andy Howitt and video production expert Brain Keeley have all taken time out to join the workshop, which was backed by the Scottish Arts Council's lottery fund. Their brief is to engage the performers in exploring the theme of heroism and conflict, and to encourage their groups to collaborate in putting together the final performance.

Like the rest of his colleagues, Denis Agnew has come along with no preconceptions. "This week is a journey for all of us. Many of the students in my drama group are not used to making their own decisions. I'm asking them to think about ideas, about different types of conflict, and to express themselves through improvisation. The group is based on trust and mutual respect, and everyone has a voice."

His approach is appreciated by the students, whose ages range from 16 to 23. The younger ones are particularly exhilarated by the freedom they have to give vent to pent-up frustration. The all too familiar shop sign stating "Three children at a time" sparks some impassioned improvisation, when introduced to the group by one of the participants.

"We're learning to trust each other and to be more confident about expressing our own ideas. It's a relay race towards Friday evening and I know we're going to make it," says Darren Spalding, a 17-year-old St Machar pupil.

"It's been a great way of making new friends and we're planning to keep in touch," says Laura Sinclair, also 17, of Bankhead Academy.

On Friday, a visit to Tom McGrath's creative writing group reveals that collaboration is itself not without its conflicts. His eight students, who have varying degrees of writing experience, have the challenge of writing a script for a drama group which has been focusing on physical, non-verbal theatre. Denis Agnew is confident he has equipped his students to cope with any script they receive at the last minute. At 11am, only eight hours from curtain up, with his students scribbling in tense silence, McGrath hopes he is not bluffing.

But the concern is good humoured and the quiet spoken Glaswegian writer is quick to point out that the interaction between groups has been inspiring. "We have worked particularly well with Andy's dance group and Eddie's music students, and we're looking forward to seeing what Steven's art group comes up with for the set.

"Brian's media team, who have been making a video documentary of the week and whose recordings of our writers reading their work will form part of the performance, were great to have around and added another dimension."

And the performance itself? The final word must go to Jacqueline McKay, Aberdeen's new arts education co-ordinator and instigator of the summer school. "It was amazing. Steven's art group had built a huge tepee-style installation, which was brought to life by light and sound. The actors and dancers spilled out on to the stage and floor and performed a montage of art forms, which left the audience stunned. The feedback was great and everyone left on a high."

She added: "We're planning to screen the media group's documentary in September, and a lot of interest has been shown in forming a youth group to develop the variety of ideas which came out of this week."

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