Going with the ebb and flow

3rd November 1995 at 00:00
At best, theatre in education work for special needs should also succeed with mainstream audiences. Timothy Ramsden assesses developments

Mistakes have been made; lessons have been learned. In place of the tokenism which affected some theatre in education companies which turned their attention to special needs, there is now greater sensitivity and a welcome willingness to listen to teachers about the individual needs of young people.

And we have gone past what Gill Brigg, a former advisory teacher for drama with Suffolk County Council refers to as the "clown and puppy" stage. Ms Brigg has spent a lot of time in special schools, and from her experience grew a proto-project, Harvest, and its development Seascape, scripted by Robert Rigby, which she directed and which was toured by the Ipswich-based Wolsey Theatre in Education company.

Intended for young people with severe learning difficulties, the four-module programme was toured this summer (a new tour is planned for 1997) with each school able to choose which module or combination suited its pupils' needs. Basic to the programme was the idea of challenging audiences through language. It was therefore important to have different linguistic levels available, and to have content suited to the age range. Ms Brigg recalls with horror a past experience of a teenage special needs class being shunted into a play for mainstream primary pupils.

"It is important not to compromise on language, our main communication tool and therefore a kind of currency. And language sets up the 'Let's pretend' contract of theatre, the line between life and fantasy," she says. One module though, Seashore, for young people with profound and multiple learning difficulties, is a real cube edged with blue and yellow curtains, its small audience placed on inflatables. It employs five-part harmonies, wave effects, language spoken in canon, and tactile objects such as sand, pebbles and seaweed.

Where the Clouds Meet the Sea sends the class to follow a character on a journey. Some gain from the narrative; for others it develops motor skills, involving the negotiation of stepping-stones, pulling ropes etc. Camping Experts asks the class to choose one out of three actors to join an imaginary camping trip. The class helps sort out equipment, put up a tent and prepare simple food. Then there is a performance piece, Lost and Found.

Seascape played only in special schools but Wolsey Theatre in Education director Andrew Breakwell wants to build on the experience. Next spring he is touring Peter Rumney's play Moving Voices round mainstream schools for GCSE classes. It was written for Theatre Centre to tour to special schools in 1994 and concerns three siblings living in a windmill.

One cannot speak but plays the cello to communicate, and her sister looks after her while their brother goes to work in the city. A stranger, who at first also seems unable to speak, arrives.

Many questions are inherent in the play yet are not openly asked, let alone answered. Where are the parents? Why do the windmill's sails not turn? Why do the three live on separate floors? All this gives some scope for GCSE work while the barriers relate to all young people in relationships with friends, parents etc. Yet there are particular resonances for people with special needs, Breakwell believes. "It's also about the outside world impinging on a closed community, the cocoon parents can create. And about how you communicate if words are not appropriate." In short, the large theme of coming to terms with the world.

He hopes both special needs classes and special schools will join the audiences, including some of those who experienced Seascape. This will provide a progression both aesthetic and social. Moving Voices offers a more intense theatrical experience - set, lighting, developed characterisation - than is available in classroom work.

"Moving Voices is about being in touch with your own emotions," says Breakwell. "There must be no condescending - we must recognise that people with special needs have emotions and exactly the same kinds of response to art or craft as anyone else.

"It's important to be honest and open and think in terms of the same artistic criteria, such as depth of character, raising fundamental questions, being multifaceted."

Leeds-based Interplay Theatre specialises in special needs work. According to director Jon Palmer it too has developed towards use of language; its current tour, Sea Changes is an hour-long play based on The Tempest.

It aims not to tell the story - which would be hard anyway with only four actors and one hour, but also inappropriate for an audience where many people could not retain the narrative. Instead it works through images, while providing the richness, imagery and musicality of Shakespeare's language as part of a sensory experience which also includes music, aromas and humour. And it asks young people to be part of a theatre audience, wrapped tight around the acting area.

This contrasts with much of Interplay's earlier work which, as its name suggests, focused on participation.

A strong advocate of inclusive education, Palmer rejects "integration" as suggesting people with special needs should be slotted into a preconceived format designed without them in mind. Inclusion for him means looking at every individual's needs and building the form around those. So in Sea Changes the meaning of each event is reinforced for people who are deaf by a gestural style of performance. This is distinct from any formal sign language. He believes good work for special schools will succeed with mainstream audiences; to say otherwise is to condescend to special needs pupils. Sea Changes will play to inclusive community audiences. It is at times wildly funny, and often moving as it works through a series of strongly charged theatrical images. And though the original has been cut and rearranged, the play remains faithful to Shakespeare's language.

Palmer reports teachers as saying that workshops indicate pupils have absorbed a "staggering amount" from the show. Hay Lane School for young people with severe or profound and multiple learning difficulties, in Kingsbury, north London, was on the tour. Deputy head Jillie Wright asks, "Why shouldn't our pupils have access to Shakespeare's wonderful language?" She is keen to bring her pupils together with those in mainstream schools and good relations have been forged with local middle and comprehensive schools.

For Hay Lane pupils there are tremendous advantages in learning social skills. There is also the chance to discover that their work and participation has value outside the comparatively close community of their own school. And their home space has value - it should not always be supposed that the mainstream school plays host - a point Jon Palmer also makes.

What is necessary in a busy world is careful preparation. Gill Brigg says it is vital for all teachers to attend the preparation day which the Wolsey will provide for Moving Voices so they can adequately prepare their pupils for the shared experience. Jillie Wright confirms the amount of pre-planning needed for any joint venture.

But future work for young people will clearly need to consider both the challenges language can offer all pupils and methods of working towards inclusive audiences with the artistic and social benefits this can offer both mainstream and special needs pupils.

* Sea Changes tours special schools and community venues in early 1996. Details from lnterplay. Tel: 0113 263 8556

* Moving Voices tours Suffolk in spring 1996. Details from Wolsey Theatre in Education. Tel: 01473 226092

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