Alison Thomas sees English and French schools get together to produce a bilingual musical about tragedy and romance in two fishing villages
In the best time-honoured traditions of creative inspiration, the bilingual musical started life as a sketch on a pub napkin. In this case the artist was Kevin Lane, head of music at Cape Cornwall School in St Just, and his dinner companion was senior teacher and linguist Ginny March. "I scribbled Cornwall in one corner and Brittany in the other, with the sea in between as the setting for a common experience leading to a common resolution," he explains.
From this broad outline pupils developed a plot, which they relayed to their exchange partners in the College St Gildas in the Breton town of Auray. And so was born Harbour Lights (Les Feux de la mer), a series of musical tableaux telling the tale of two 19th-century fishing villages brought together by a violent storm. Both lost a boat to the treacherous waves, but the production concludes on a happy note with two Anglo-French weddings as the sole survivor from each vessel falls in love with a girl from the parallel community that rescued him.
This unusual project follows on from another last year, when students tapped into their common Celtic heritage to compose and perform music based on local myths and legends. It all began when Ginny was looking for ways of boosting the Year 9 exchange and, with Kevin's help, secured financial support from Creative Partnerships, a government-funded initiative that promotes the arts in schools. "As a small school serving a deprived community, we don't have a large pool of potential recruits and many families can't afford this type of trip," she explains.
The strategy paid off and numbers doubled from eight to 16, rising again to 21 this year. Unfortunately, Creative Partnerships no longer funds this type of venture, but a successful application for an Anglo-French Joint Curriculum Project grant ensured that Harbour Lights could go ahead.
"A poetic and moving visual spectacle with arresting moments of high drama entranced a packed house," is how Brittany's daily newspaper, Le Telegramme, described the opening performance in March, which will be repeated in St Just in June. High praise indeed, but behind this accolade lies huge commitment, all the more so as this is an entirely original product. "Everyone had a hand in writing the lyrics, which the instrumentalists set to music," says Kevin, who admits to moments of frustration when progress was slow. "There is a fine balance between moving things along and not being too directive," he says.
Fitting preparations into an overcrowded timetable was another challenge.
While St Gildas solved this by creating a special class, which devoted two hours a week to the project, Kevin and Ginny had to rely on the goodwill of colleagues when performers missed occasional lessons, and students'
willingness to turn up after school and at weekends. Teacher time was also at a premium, although the engagement of a voice coach helped spread the workload and gave students the added benefit of professional input.
Then there was the question of co-ordination. While last year's concert consisted largely of self-contained items, this year's more ambitious production includes scenes which bring the two nations together. "We were hoping to communicate by video link, but in the event had to rely on exchanging tapes," says Ginny.
Two days' rehearsal was all they had to bring together their separate contributions, practise bilingual duets and adapt stage management to cater for the unexpected.
"The leading French boy turned out to be about 10 inches shorter than the girl he was supposed to be in love with, so they serenaded each other from a seated position," she laughs.
For Kevin, one fascinating aspect of the project has been the insight he has gained into another nation's artistic traditions. For where the English interpretation resembles a West End musical with big chorus scenes, the French have focused on lavish choreography with music in the background.
Student creative input was also significantly greater on the English side, reflecting not only different teaching styles but a discrepancy in the quantity and quality of resources.
"When my opposite number first saw our facilities he was astonished and has now persuaded his head to invest in some keyboards and drums. Until then all he had was a piano and a few recorders," he says. For his part, Kevin adapted some of his colleague's strategies to speed up composition.
If music teachers on both sides of the Channel have benefited from collaboration, so too have the pupils, who discovered on first meeting that the prospect of performing together helped break the ice. For Annie-Mae Rorke, rehearsals provided some of the most enjoyable moments of her week in France. "We really got to know our partners and had a laugh together in spite of language problems," she says.
Emily Law agrees, adding that partners offered each other lots of mutual support when nerves threatened to take over.
Although plans for the next joint venture have yet to be finalised, Kevin has ambitions to broaden its scope. Music technology is a development area in the curriculum and he believes a combination of physical and visual media, such as film projected on a back screen, might encourage more boys to take part.
A more immediate concern is finance, as the Joint Curriculum Project grant caters only for the current production. Having already invested so much effort into forging relationships and developing ways of working, Kevin and Ginny refuse to contemplate defeat.
Their belief in the project is echoed by Leila Sutcliffe, who speaks for many when she describes the impact on her confidence. "I was really scared to begin with and when I managed to cope for the week it felt great. I don't speak good French - now I want to learn."
* Joint Curriculum Projects are funded by the DfES and administered by the British Council. A JCP grant enables schools with an established partner in Germany, France or Spain to collaborate on a creative project which includes a reciprocal exchange.
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