Ghosts and a spectre of a happy home
Visible Fictions' logo, a frog balancing on one toe on a wheel, reflects the company's approach to children's theatre: it is risk-taking, ambitious and unpredictable. However, it ignores another quality: the patient planning and scheming for more than a year that can carefully build a project.
Emily's House, now touring schools and theatres, had its beginnings in a New Writing project more than 12 months ago, when the company held drama workshops with the senior classes at Craigielea Primary, in Paisley, and Ardersier Primary, near Inverness.
The company's aim was to find out what children really wanted in a play.
Ask them and the response you get is last night's episode of EastEnders; engage them through drama and their deepest concerns surface.
Single-parent families were clearly minefields for the children. So was fear, a crippling emotion that children instinctively know they have to learn to control by safe practice. "I love to be scared," one girl told the drama worker.
Author Isabel Wright, noting these concerns and the turns of phrase that give a script authenticity, created an involving drama script that brings together Gillian and her mum and Ben and his Dad to start a new family life in an old house with a creepy attic.
The children have a hard time of it. Gill (played by Kate Brailsford) yearns for her father to return and hates Ben and his widowed Dad. Ben (Malcolm Hamilton) is troubled by what he thinks might be a poltergeist in the attic.
The bumps and bangs, the broken glass and daubed paint are the work of a ghost named Emily, whose activities seem almost designed to make trouble for Ben and to cause argument between the adults. Psychic energy there is, but we discover it comes from Gillian, who has read a book about poltergeists and knows something of their repertoire and puts her knowledge to the purpose of driving out Ben and his Dad so that her father can come back. The play is strong on child logic (the audience target age is nine and over).
There is strength too in the minimalist, starkly stylised production directed by Ms Brailsford and narrated by Claire Read. In front of a disjointed back wall, on a bare set, with no wings, the three actors create a theatre language of daring simplicity which, because of its clarity and discipline, the audience - young and old - understands perfectly.
This simple set and the mixed-age audience are important because they are the means and end of the most interesting innovation in this inventive project. It was an idea that grew out of discussions the company had with Alysanne Abercrombie, the cultural co-ordinator for Renfrewshire, and Yvonne Wallace, the links officer for East Renfrewshire.
Wanting to make the most of Visible Fictions' visit, not only educationally but also as an opportunity to strengthen community and parental involvement, they came up with the idea of an animation venue. Rather than pay a flying visit, Visible Fictions would spend the day transforming the school gym or hall into a fair imitation of a touring theatre, complete with blackout curtain walls and ranged seating on red benches, a stage cloth, set, theatre lighting and sound system. The school hosting the evening performance for pupils and parents would take on the poster-making and ticket-selling responsibilities.
Two schools were ambitious enough to include the visit as part of an enterprise project. At Springhill Primary in Barrhead, depute head Alison Weatherston encouraged her pupils to organise a creche and post-theatre cafe and calculate appropriate ticket prices.
The pre-performance workshop led by the Visible Fictions visual artist produced ghostly theatre curtains that the pupils printed with images of their faces.
At South Primary in Paisley, the children made grotesque masks for a foyer wall decoration.
Headteacher Joan Munro was delighted by the number of parents who came to the show with their children. "It is not always easy to encourage parents into the school," she says. "Now all these parents have shared an enjoyable and valuable school experience with their children and they can talk about it."
The same point was made by Ms Brailsford, who after an earlier performance had been approached by a single mother who thanked her for a play that gave her the chance to explain to her daughter about her father.
It is a reminder that real theatre has a resonance that lingers in the mind.
Visible Fictions' achievement is not only to tailor a play for children but also to devise the best circumstances in which they experience it.
www.visiblefictions.co.ukEmily's House, Garage Theatre, Edinburgh, May 30 (0131 228 1404); Fraserburgh, June 2 (01346 518761); Invergordon, June 4 (01349 868487)