In foreign parts

20th June 1997 at 01:00
Kevin Berry reports on French-English exchange that turned into pure theatre

French people are often charming and helpful. Send your charges on a mission around a French town and they will invariably find someone only too willing to explain everything - in perfect English.

French conversations on exchange visits have all the red-faced awkwardness of a fifth-form dance. Unless teachers do the pushing, the conversations usually cover little more than polite greetings and the odd naughty word.

A group of Year 9 and 10 students at Aireville School, Skipton, North Yorkshire, felt nervous about trying out their French on their first exchange. Not content to have them wander around the town asking tedious questions, the teachers arranged for them to perform some drama - partly in French.

The drama was so successful and so effective that a bilingual theatre project has been planned for the next exchange visits. A play has been written in English and in French, and Aireville students will go to France in the autumn and put on the play in French at venues near their host school. French students will also perform the play in English in the UK early next year.

Last year the Aireville party went to Periers in the Manche region of Normandy, where the school has a long-standing link with the Coll ge de Periers. Aireville is a secondary modern school with a reputation for excellent drama. Its students have appeared at the National Theatre, impressing actor Alan Rickman so much that when he was directing a play in Leeds he took the cast over to the school for a day.

The actors usually wear huge masks and their words are spoken by other children offstage. It is true ensemble work - the young people know each other's roles and often swap them. Sudden illnesses are never a problem.

Drama teacher Patrick Dowman writes the plays which are then refined in workshops. The presentation is vividly expressive. He has written the bilingual play planned for later this year and will ensure both groups of students adopt his democratic style.

The Aireville students prepared two plays. The plan was to make the plays fully understandable to French audiences, with commentaries by French students and parts of the dialogue spoken by Aireville's actors in the host language. One play was a gloriously funny Batman spoof, complete with two Batmen, one dressed in pink. The other play, The Grumbling Peasants, is an ironic morality story.

How did Mr Dowman prepare them? "When we started rehearsals in England and attempted some French there was a defeatist response. The pupils felt they couldn't do it, and those who did try to learn the French - well, their accents were a disaster. But then, incredibly quickly, once they were with the French kids, our children became increasingly aware of the problems of communication and of the need to speak some French. For the first time they were keen. They were saying: 'All right, I know what to say, but how do I say it?' "They would ask the French children: 'How do I say this?' And they would practise on the French pupils. They were going around practising their best French accents - knowing they were really communicating.

"I would be working the sound and lights out front and suddenly hear lines in French that they hadn't asked me about. A line that had been in English for the previous performance had gone into French. Peer group pressure or their own sense of the importance of the line made them seek out French words."

The Aireville students enjoyed the challenge of three performances in and around Periers. "The French children don't do drama. They thought we were mad," explains pupil Joanna Stonnell, "going over to France and doing a play in French. They didn't think we could pull it off. But they thought it was brilliant. Even our worst performance got applause."

Gareth Duxbury, who played the Joker in Batman, says, "In The Grumbling Peasants the French did all the narrative and our actors mimed and spoke their own lines - we listened for cue words, such as 'il pleut' for our movements.

Gareth sums up: "We were all a bit tense at first - I got more confident as the week went along. My penfriend could speak English but none of his family could, I talked to them without too much trouble."

After Periers came a tourist weekend in Paris. Chris Hankinson and a friend were on the Metro, wondering which platform they should go to. He says: "We asked someone, in French, and he said: 'You speak good French.' Then he told us where to go - in English."

Aireville's bi-lingual theatre project is partly funded by a Lingua Action E grant from the Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges, 10 Spring Gardens, London SW1A 2BN. Tel: 0171 389 4004, fax: 0171 389 4426.

Web address:http:www. britcoun.orgcbeve

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