Tension is in the air. There is a babble of voices and a rush of feet scampering towards Room 23 in the David Stow Building, Jordanhill campus of Strathclyde University. The stage is set. The scenery is in place. The lighting and sound have been checked and double checked. The performers are ready for the serious business of performing, and the backstage crew for the serious business of panicking. The audience has gathered and are waiting patiently for the story of Danny and Sandy in Grease to unfold. We had been invited by the special needs department at Jordanhill to bring our Christmas show to the campus.
The introductions are over, the male and female leads are on stage "giving it their all". Backstage, a group of three boys are also very much "giving it their all", coping with a pitch black environment and the logistics of travelling to centre stage through a myriad of curtains and stage flats.
"Me feared to stay here", Shaun stage whispers. "Try to be brave, sit on this chair and wait until you have to move to the front," his teacher whispers back. Like a litany Shaun chants quietly under his breath: "Me brave, me brave. " His neighbour, Ian, lays a reassuring hand on top of Shaun's clammy, fidgeting one. "We'll soon be on stage," hisses William.
The mime stops. It is the cue for the three boys to go. In a crocodile they trustingly follow their teacher's lead through the curtains which represent Sleeping Beauty's thorn forest and after what seems like a darkened lifetime the boys emerge flushed and ready to march on stage.
The next scene has begun. Jillian has to sing her solo. She visibly shakes as she takes the microphone. At first she quietly mouths the words, then as her confidence builds her beautiful voice begins to fill the theatre. While the audience enjoy the song there is organised panic in the dressing-room. Teachers, auxiliaries and school secretary are changing outfits, finding props, and soothing the young thespians' nerves. Where are the props for the next scene? Paul, who occasionally refused to rehearse, is standing poised in the wings.
As he makes for the stage, he gives everyone the thumbs-up sign. The backstage crew respond accordingly. The scene is a success. The cheerleaders kick high and "Danny" and "Sandy" make up. As Paul leaves the stage grinning with self achievement, he hisses: "That was wicked."
Backstage another drama is unfolding: where are the two T-Bird jackets? After much running to and fro, from corridor to stage and from stage to dressing -room, the two offending jackets are located. As the jackets are being hastily put on the appropriate children by a highly frustrated and perspiring teacher, one of the Pink Ladies pats her back reassuringly, "Calm, calm, it's OK, " Pamela sighs benignly. The teacher resumes her calm, aware that a curious reversal of roles has just taken place.
On stage are more performers. They are no longer schoolboys with their teacher. They are the T-Birds. To the upbeat rhythm of "Greased Lightning" they follow stage directions and dance steps perfectly. Amid much cheering and applause they leave the stage pink cheeked and delighted.
"Sandy" and "Danny" are on stage ready to fall in and out of love at the "Drive-in". There is tension backstage: will "Sandy" remember to throw the ring back at "Danny" as rehearsed? Ian has quickly changed from T-Bird to a smart velvet jacket and bow tie: he is the soloist for "Stranded at the Drive-in". He has rehearsed his song for two months and only allows himself to smile when he reaches the end.
The "Finale" comes and goes. The faces of both staff and pupils display similar emotions: delight, relief, and sheer exhilaration. The audience show their appreciation. "Telt you we were good," says Shaun as he leaves the stage shaking a proud fist in the air.
The planning, preparation and collaboration needed to develop this stage production were immense but immeasurably valuable. It was at the same time a whole-school, cross-curricular enterprise and a staff-pupil partnership. At every stage all the pupils and all the staff were involved. Ultimately the process of producing this show was as valuable educationally as was the product.
Pupils matured through the whole experience and through identifying with their role characters. Social and communication skills developed perceptibly and self-esteem was palpable.
In his closing remarks Paul Hamill, head of special educational needs, summed it up in these words: "All too often in special education we discuss what the children can't do. Today we have had a chance to see what they can do."
Laura Penberthy is a teacher at Newhills School, which takes children with severe and complex learning difficulties from Easterhouse and surrounding areas.