Hard work and all play at theatre showcase

10th October 2003 at 01:00
The annual Scottish showcase of performing arts for young audiences known as What You See Is What You Get, or more usually Wysiwyg, has quickly developed from an autumn hiring fair where theatre managers can sign up companies to an important date on the arts educationists'

calendar.

The three-day meeting, offering the chance to attend a variety of shows and workshops, is hosted every September by Imaginate, the same group that runs the annual Children's International Theatre Festival in Edinburgh. This year it was held in Stirling and proof of its popularity was how quickly the 75 delegate places sold out. "There was a waiting list in case of any cancellations," says marketing and communications director Abigail Carney.

Rosie Lewis, cultural co-ordinator for West Lothian, says: "Wysiwyg is 100 per cent important on a personal and professional level.

"Seeing 15 shows in three days is not only a massive intravenous hit of theatre, but the only way to judge their fitness for your own schools. You cannot decide on the strength of promotional literature.

"At the same time, it is a unique opportunity to reflect on your work with fellow workers from all over Scotland. At the moment, it's the only chance for those working in arts and cultural education to get together."

Imaginate director Tony Reekie, asked whether this element of reflection deserved a formal place in the programme, admits that the best discussions happen around the bar after the shows. "Anything like a keynote address or formal debate prevents people from sharing their thoughts in the way that best suits them at the time they want to," he says.

"Arts educationists and artists are a sharing community and the essence of Wysiwyg is that it is generous, open-hearted and non-judgmental. That is why I shall never be selective about the shows we host. The quality may be mixed but that may be a way of raising the general standard."

In the programme this year were back-to-back performances of Complete Productions' The Chrysalids and Catherine Wheels Theatre Company's Lifeboat.

Complete Productions staged David Harrower's adaptation of John Wyndham's novel, written at a time when the dominant European fear was of nuclear warfare and its aftermath. Now that the fear of mutation has become anxiety about immigrants and asylum-seekers, it plays like a story of a modern Romeo and Juliet and makes a worthy vehicle for diversity education.

The young cast, under director Lorenzo Mele, give forthright performances all the way from the opening Free Church style psalm-singing (which swiftly creates a spookily alien atmosphere) to the intensely felt final reconciliation.

Complete Productions shares resources with the Catherine Wheels Theatre Company, which was founded four years ago by director Gill Robertson. Its story this time is of the luxury liner The City of Benares, which set sail for Canada from Liverpool on Friday September 13, 1940 with 90 evacuee children. Four days into the journey it was torpedoed: only 11 survived.

Lifeboat tells the story of Bess Walder and Beth Cumming, from London and Liverpool, who saved themselves by clinging to an upturned lifeboat for 19 hours before being rescued.

The play sketches in what it was like to be a child in wartime Britain, with tales of air-raid shelters, sweet rationing and wirelesses that only Father was allowed to touch. It also reflects the cruel kindness that separated children and parents, the stoic cheerfulness of the parents and the naive enthusiasm of the young who went gleefully to Canada, thinking it only a step away from Hollywood and being a film star like Judy Garland.

The girls' ordeal on the lifeboat cemented a bond that stills lasts, as friends and sisters-in-law. Playwright Nicola McCartney celebrates their kinship with a dialogue that plays like an excited Morecambe and Wise.

Infused with a robust innocence and uninhibited vitality by Suzanne Robertson and Gemma Burns, the play becomes an affirming shout for human courage in the face of appalling circumstance. It won the 2002 Barclays award for the best new show for children.

Productions as good as this are not easy to catch because of their demand at festivals abroad but before Lifeboat moves on to London and Galway, it is showing in Scotland until November and will be back again next May and June.

Complete Productions, tel 0141 357 3220Catherine Wheels Theatre Company, tel 0131 653 4266

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