In Gloucestershire, a theatre outreach project is bringing literature to life through puppets. Fergus Crow reports.
Sixty small hands hang in the air angled upwards, the tips of the fingers pressed together to resemble mountains. Before them, a woman in a heavy velvet coat with an alpine scene embroidered across it comes to the close of her song. The little hands drop back into the children's laps to signal that the smallest Silly Billy Goat Gruff can continue his anxious gambol across the rickety fabric bridge. It seems that Groanmore, the puppet troll, must wait for a fatter billy goat to prey on.
The Story Coat project has been bringing storytelling sessions such as The Three Billy Goats Gruff to Years 1 to 6 in primary schools across Gloucestershire and South-West England for nearly two years. Cheltenham's Everyman Theatre's reachout department developed it as a response to teachers' requests for help with the literacy hour.
Schools have a choice of The Three Billy Goats Gruff for Years 1 and 2, Orpheus in the Underworld for Years 3 and 4 or Macbeth for Years 5 and 6. The performances last 40 minutes for younger children and 60 for older ones. Workshops of 20 or 30 minutes follow, designed to get the pupils working with language, and writing in ways that may not fit easily into a conventional lesson. The sessions are supported by resources developed in line with literacy hour directives, so that the Story Coat work can be consolidated in the classroom.
Key to the sessions is the story coat itself. The heavy, layered tunic opens up like a theatre to reveal colourful scenes and settings. Puppet characters spring from its dark recesses.
Judy Emmet wears the story coat. She believes a visual approach to storytelling helps children retain aspects of a story. It also encourages them to use what they have seen and experienced imaginatively during the performance as a spur to expressing and creating atmosphere in their own writing.
"Drama is an extraordinarily powerful tool," says Sue Colverd, the Everyman's artistic director. "And it is a co-operative, not a competitive, discipline. It can really hook children into a topic, and once they're hooked they can work through their senses."
With the three goats safely grazing in their field and the hungry troll finally banished, the Year 1 and 2 children at Hesters Way primary school in Cheltenham use storyboards to retell the story they have just seen.
They have been using storyboards in class to plan their own writing. But this is no ordinary storyboard.
The children volunteer to hold up large, brightly coloured cards, each featuring cartoon images from the story. Then they read out short extracts together, pairing them with the relevant image. The giant storyboard finally arches from one side of the school hall to the other.
At Swindon village primary, near Cheltenham, a wild-haired Macbeth puppet clutches at a tiny dagger, held before him by a devilish hand arching up from behind the story coat. Judy leads the laird through an edited version of his famous soliloquy. Then his devious wife appears and sends him into the folds of the coat to rid Scotland of its fair king.
"I like the way they use puppets," says Year 5 pupil Fiona Jennings. "From a kid's point of view, it makes you take it in."
The Macbeth workshop focuses the children on symbolism and simile. Nat Tarrab is working with Judy on the trickier, supernatural aspects of the story. He brings out the puppets and asks the children what symbol would fit Lady Macbeth, given that Macbeth's livery features a wolf and Banquo's a hart.
"A ferret," cries one pupil.
"A spider," cries another, "a black widow."
Nat suggests they recreate the play's opening in the school hall. Enthusiastic children soon grip the rim of a large olive parachute and shake it to make stormy winds on the heath. They use their voices to concoct a soundtrack for the entrance of the warriors. Then lines from the play are added until the small hall is filled with the sound of 25 Year 5 witches chanting.
The session closes with the children writing their own versions of Macbeth's arrival on the heath. One pupil describes the morning mist as "a black blanket of evil".
Judy says her measure of success is the feedback in comments and written work sent in later. But "every so often, a very little one can't find the words to say, but just comes and gives me a hug, which says it all."
Contact The Everyman Theatre, Regent Street, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL50 1HQ. Reachout department. Tel: 01242 512515. Education officer Camille Freeman.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Web: www.everymantheatre.org.uk Story Coat sessions cost pound;82.25 inc VAT.
Similar outreach programmes Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham. Tel: 0121 440 4221 ext 266. Liverpool Everyman Theatre and Liverpool Playhouse, contact Rebecca Ross. Tel: 0151 708 3700. The West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds. Tel: 0113 213 729