Lives are shaped by spring's big productions

16th April 2010 at 01:00

As I look back over the changes that have occurred in my job over 30 years, I will get no prizes for reaching the conclusion that it has altered in almost every conceivable way. Sometimes for the better, sometimes clearly not. However, it does strike me that there are still a few aspects of school life that remain fundamentally unchanged.

One of these is the institution that is the school production. A highlight of the school year for many and, if we are honest, a nuisance to others. An unwelcome event that detracts from the quest for academic success or the kind of multifaceted project in which the pupils and staff of a school work as one and which allows them to shine in a unique way? As the head of an arts faculty in a comprehensive school, and as the husband of a head of drama in another school, I have been there, done that many times, and possess the (amazing Technicolor) T-shirt.

The spring term has always been, for me, the term of the production. A time when the momentum that grows through the winter months culminates in a week of performances in March or April - a time of stress and excitement that builds to a sort of sprint finish like some sort of theatrical middle-distance race.

This year, Grease and High School Musical have vied for my attention as one took over my place of work and the other took over my home for several weeks. Last week I attended performances of both so that by now I am totally confused as the events at East High and Rydell High merge into one and "Start of Something New" and "Hopelessly Devoted to You" begin to sound like the same song.

My first experience of the genre in the 1980s was as musical director of a production of My Fair Lady. The technical aspects were primitive compared with today's sophisticated sound and lighting set-ups. Incredibly, all the costumes were made by pupils and staff, while the art department spent every spare moment working on the set while their classes looked on.

The scene changes were especially cumbersome (and were a great source of entertainment in themselves) as Covent Garden became Higgins' study became Ascot became the ambassador's ballroom became Covent Garden again. But we all loved it. It took over the school for weeks and, despite all the arguments and pitfalls along the way, the sense of satisfaction and pride felt as a school was immense.

Today's productions are slicker - the sound is usually very good (I remember dress rehearsals where the sound consisted largely of feedback, as there were no radio mics then) and the lighting is often of a professional standard. The sets are also vastly improved - no more collapsing scenery, or curtains that won't open properly.

The type of show chosen has also changed - schools once put on Gilbert and Sullivan, Shakespeare or even grand opera - my own school once staged Verdi's Nabucco (and was still paying for it three years later). Nowadays, it is more likely to be Les Miserables or Hairspray.

However, some things are as they always were. The pupils remain a mass of barely controllable adrenalin; there are still the same last-minute panics over everything from whether the PTA will provide the interval refreshments to whether complimentary tickets had been sent to the governors; the rehearsals still go on long into the evening; and the dedicated staff look increasingly drawn as they try to summon up the last vestiges of energy from their cast and themselves. And, finally, there is the vast cumulative sigh of relief, tinged with regret, when it's all over.

Other things also seem to have remained bizarrely constant. Such as the lead who always loses her voice on the morning of the first performance (only for it to mysteriously reappear by the evening - usually when mention is made of the possibility of someone else standing in) and the band which is always criticised as being too loud (and which always turns a deaf ear to this criticism).

When I meet ex-pupils, often many years later, it is then that the lasting impact that these events have made is obvious to me. Strangely, they don't remember much about my lessons or even the fact that I might have played an important part in their movement to higher education. It is often to a show in which they were involved that they will turn the conversation.

They might recall the time when the sign for The Golden Garter saloon came crashing down in midscene in the production of Calamity Jane, or when all the lights went out for a couple of minutes in the middle of a chorus in Guys and Dolls as the singing continued in darkness. The experience of being involved in these productions had clearly left them with memories that will live with them forever.

Geraint Davies, Head of arts faculty, Llantarnam School, Cwmbran.

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