Getting in on the action

1st March 1996 at 00:00
Pupils in Chester have been collaborating on the process of scriptwriting with real playwrights. Timothy Ramsden reports.

Is playwriting "drama" or "English"? Pupils in Cheshire are combining action and script as Chester's Gateway Theatre in partnership with the county's Drama Education Services develops an Arts Council- funded project to put playwrights into schools.

In response to the post-Dearing English national curriculum order, with the demand for writing and performance of scripted drama plus the understanding of dramatic structures, direction and characterisation, the project has sent playwrights Vanessa Brooks, Paul Goetzee and Kathleen McCreery into a total of 15 establishments for five days apiece. In schools they worked with key stages 2 to 4. Five primaries and secondaries were chosen for the quality of their bids, and to provide a geographical and social spread over the county. Three youth theatres were added plus an FE college and a higher education college.

Following set-up sessions with teachers, county adviser Sue Welshman and the Gateway's then community programme officer Benedict Ayrton, each writer conducted workshops in their five schools and colleges. Some were concentrated in a short time, others spread visits out. Some worked intensively with a few classes, though many schools wanted the experience spread widely.

Young people then worked on scripts with teachers; this term support is coming from the Gateway and Drama Education Services, leading to in-house performances and some presentations at the Gateway later this month.

Throughout the project, Sue Welshman says, "scriptwriting is rooted in activity. It's drama based, with practical activities as a way of developing text. That's why the writers did practical workshops on structure, synopses and character development. Young people who saw plays as just 'something there' now see them as things that have been worked on".

The aim is to open up the processes by which a script comes into being; how writing is influenced, how language is used, how plays reflect their writers' passions. It is a lesson to young people, Welshman says, that "You write about what you care about most".

Once young people admit this to themselves, the results in turn can astonish. Sue Welshman quotes Kathleen McCreery as saying that some plays the classes produced would be dismissed as too difficult for their age. "These have been accessible, enjoyable workshops. Very quickly classes have started talking easily and flexibly about such things as a synopsis or dialogue," Sue Welshman claims.

Of the practical techniques used, she recalls Vanessa Brooks making a class reflect on the nature of the theatrical experience by having one person observe and describe their partner unwrapping and eating a sweet; and Kathleen McCreery bringing in toy building blocks and letting classes use them to express the shapes of specific plays; they saw how a play could assume various shapes for different audience members.

Paul Goetzee used the device of the last two humans on earth being on trial. Animal witnesses adopted different views, for prosecution or defence. Apart from characterisations this led to examination of ways in which separate speeches might be built into a script.

Workshops also explored sub text, the gap between thought and feeling. Inexperienced writers tend to cram in every detail. Vanessa Brooks countered this with her own overwritten script stuffed with language inappropriate to the characters. Sue Welshman says: "Primary teachers unjustifiably lacked self-confidence in some cases. But now they feel more confident. They have been given approaches they would never have thought of using; looking at the way a play is structured, for example."

Schools selected have an active interest in drama. At Chester's Overleigh St Mary's Church of England Primary an enthusiastic young drama teacher Stephen Williams and his equally keen English colleague Neil Gledhill involved members of Years 3 to 6 and students from the school's moderate learning difficulties (MLD) classes in the work with Vanessa Brooks. The MLD pupils spoke scripts into a tape recorder rather than writing. As Brooks explains: "I concentrated less on written work . . . and more on the imaginativestructural process which was their strength." Scenes built on the idea of times of day were used to develop dramatic conflict. "We spoke a bit about shapes, the four seasons, cliffhangers in programmes like Neighbours. I thoroughly enjoyed working with the special needs group. There is a wealth of imaginative power here."

For Stephen Williams the project meant planning throughout the key stage and managing differentiation, as well as seeking ways to build on what has been learned about drama production. (This identifies a long- term aim of the project managers; not only is it seen as a pilot for practice elsewhere, it is hoped each institution involved will take the work forward.) He recalls classes stimulated by scenes like an air-stewardess trying to calm passengers before a crash landing or a knocking at the window of a car broken down in a dark country lane. They learned about dialogue which was speakable rather than fine writing, and the use of stage directions to convey information.

At Overleigh each class is producing its own script, following Vanessa Brooks' scenario. It will not be a linear action but a collage of 14 scenes of three to five minutes, written in groups of two to four following discussion of characters, relationships, words and how they can be changed. The subject, "The Life of our Mums and Dads", is one Stephen Williams believes his younger pupils found hard (real Chester parents don't live torridly theatrical lives - at least not in front of the children) and he would like to see the school choosing subject-matter connected with national curriculum studies.

Yet the project provides confidence in practical methods of script writing and production. "All the pupils enjoyed it, as did the teachers who found new ways of working. It is helping with independent learning and seeing a script as a collaborative, not isolated, thing."

Ten miles away in Tarporley High School, Kathleen McCreery's work was shared between a Year l0 GCSE drama class and a Year 7 humanities group working on a project about north American Indians. Head of drama Jane Barth is positive: "Kathleen would be quite blunt, saying, for instance, 'That wouldn't have happened'. She pushed them within their own sphere of understanding, because she has a broader vision of what the potential of the material was and pushed them to a better and a better acted play." But the process was never patronising nor insensitive. "Kathleen was aware of the need for encouragement. "

Research and trying out ideas, "finding out what works when you get up and do it," have been among the learning processes. "Groups had to make choices, see what worked. They had to cut and modify scripts." The school ensured roughly equal contributions from each class member. "I think it's important each feels they've contributed - everyone has given some of the words or ideas."

For drama teacher Louise Headon, the gains of a non-deskbound, experiment-and-redraft approach come in clarity of story and structure and understanding the need to research, to know characters and their backgrounds and in a stop-talking, get-writing collaboration.

Time has been the enemy. Time to plan more and avoid the misunderstandings that occurred in some places over the writer's role, time for the writers to work more on the young people's scripts. Such a project works best when visitors and all teachers involved have the same, clear aims and work collaboratively towards them.

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