Get out on the road with a good drama

5th November 2004 at 00:00
Education needs to do more to enthuse children about the performing arts, says Michael Russell

A critic," observed the arch critic Kenneth Tynan, "is a man who knows the way but can't drive the car." Education should be about teaching young people the skills that will allow them to navigate through life's rapids or, to put in another way, to "drive the car". Yet many of the methods employed are still merely about reading the map.

Involving students in the creative arts should be different, and in music particularly we have, by and large, left behind the rows of serried ranks listening to someone else performing (usually on a scratchy disc), or singing along to a badly played piano. Given that providing a grounding in culture, in all its richness, does a great deal more than simply impart information, it is active participation as much as interpretation that should be important for teachers and pupils alike. In fact, to quote another critic - Susan Sontag - interpretation is often only "the revenge of the intellect upon art".

Which brings me to drama. It is disappointing how little drama is actively, as opposed to passively, taught in Scotland's schools. Certainly there are bright exceptions and tremendously vibrant drama departments in some establishments, but even the annual trip to see professional theatre in action - which I remember from my own school days - is less and less common. Shortage of funds, pressures of the overcrowded curriculum, bureaucratic restrictions and a lack of interest by pupils are often cited as reasons.

Plays need to be seen to be appreciated. That sounds axiomatic, but many young people who are required to study texts as part of their English courses will leave school without ever seeing them come to life. Fewer still will ever have the chance of meeting professional actors, appreciating the interaction of writers with space and time and perhaps even trying their own, or other people's, lines out on a stage.

Of course, in some places the effort necessary to provide access to such experiences is overwhelming. The Scottish cities are reasonably well served, as are those places within bussing distance of them, but in vast swathes of rural Scotland there isn't a footlight to be found within a hundred miles.

Yet when the chance arises, the potential is great. During September and early October, the new locally based professional Skeklers Theatre Company played in five community halls in Shetland as well as in the Garrison Theatre in Lerwick. The play they presented was written by a well established author, Grace Barnes, who has worked all over the world but who now lives both in Edinburgh and Shetland, where she was brought up.

Zander's Boat is a development of a piece first produced as part of the events surrounding the Tall Ships Race in Lerwick some years ago, and has been broadcast on Radio 4 as well as staged in the United States. This was its first outing in Shetland and, as it deals with local themes and features local dialect (although it has a universal message), it was particularly appropriate.

The audiences were enthusiastic, but so were the other participants - the hundreds of school children who attended five schools performances, as well as those who took part in readings and worked with the actors during the period of rehearsal, which took place in the hostel building that is part of the Anderson High complex. The enthusiasm of the school's dynamic new headteacher, Valerie Nicolson, was a key element in making these things happen, as was a small amount of funding from the education authority.

By publishing the text of the play as the programme for the performance - something that should be done with all new plays - a document for immediate study and further active use was provided so that it could be readily and permanently to hand. When working in school, the actors also assisted in reading and performing parts of curriculum texts, bringing them to life in a place where they would otherwise have remained firmly anchored to the page. The value added both to the work of the company, and to the school, by means of such activities was immense.

That was even more so when pupils from outlying areas were able to have access to the performers and the performance. An introduction from Grace Barnes preceded the play and it was followed with an opportunity to meet the cast and crew and to ask them questions. For most of the young people something outwith their experience had suddenly entered their field of vision and they embraced it with both hands.

The company hopes to present Barnes's adaptation of Jackie Kay's novel Trumpet, a world first, next year. The book is already being provided to schools for them to read prior to the rehearsal period, and the music of the play - a central element - has been commissioned not from an outside composer but from a very talented final-year school pupil. Resources permitting - and that is always a problem in the arts today in Scotland - the company should be able to do more shows for more schools and spend more time with the pupils in a variety of settings, undertaking a variety of learning experiences.

This is not only good education. It is also an investment in the future.

Audiences are developed in just such a way and, if a Shetland audience can be built over a period of years, the longer term prospects for professional drama there are good.

That might also be a lesson for our new National Theatre. The idea that money might be used just to bus kids in to see things that were already being provided for others has been floated, but let us hope it sinks quickly. The real route forward would be for the National Theatre - and every other theatre - to engage with schools in a way that produces fresh means of learning. Means of learning that do really teach how to "drive the car".

Michael Russell is a writer and commentator.

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