Making it up as they go along

26th March 2010 at 00:00
Experimental show fires up nursery pupils' imaginations long after performance has ended

Meet the two Margarets who are going to take you on a magic journey through a brightly-coloured marsh full of bog blooms and a cave full of echoes, and then across the sea to the top of a mountain where you'll find your heart's desire.

On your way you'll meet the Ooogley Boogley Lady, who'll only speak to you in Ooogley Boogley, and the Fishy Wishy Lady, who'll only speak to you in Fishy Wishy.

You might even have to scare a bear away. But you're not scared because you know this is only play and you know the two Margarets are really actors. You know, because they told you at the start. And, anyway, it's going to be fun in the marsh lands, throwing mud at each other and at the teacher and the nursery nurse.

This isn't "a play". It's "play". The children are not in an audience. There are only 10 of them, and they all take part. And the marsh, sea, cave and mountain - well, they're all this one big cloth. Together the children can make it wave like the sea. Turn it over to see the bog blooms. Hang it on the frame and enter the cave. Put their stick people on the top and watch them slide down the mountain. And, yes, it's also the bird that will fly them to the top of the mountain.

This is Lickety Leap, a participative show, written and designed for three- to four-year-olds by Lickety Spit, which has been delivering experimental theatre for young children for some 10 years.

It's called Lickety Leap because that's exactly what the piece is about: asking the nursery pupils to make that leap into becoming part of the show. Only it's not really a "show", because there's no audience necessary; and if there is an audience (for example, parents), they are asked to keep silent throughout, so as not to disturb the children's imagined and imaginative journey.

"It's one of the few events I've seen where children become absorbed into making theatre," says Stephanie Knight, former director of the research centre for arts education at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh. "It's not a workshop. It's more than that. The children are not performers, because they're not playing to an audience. They're participants who are totally integrated, and one result of this is that no two performances of the piece are ever quite or exactly the same."

Ms Knight is acting as "artist recorder" for the company, which is working with six groups of children - some 60 pupils in all - from three Glasgow and three East Lothian nurseries over the next two months. "It's too early to quantify anything yet, but already it's apparent this offers a tremendous resource for classroom teachers and could prove a catalyst across Scotland," she says.

Each "event" is videoed to play back to teachers and parents. Lickety Spit returns to each group to ask what the children remember and ascertain how it has affected their play.

"Anecdotal evidence . tells us that the children use blankets and towels at home to re-imagine and develop their journeys, and talk constantly of the `two Margarets'," says Lickety Spit director Virginia Radcliffe.

"It's about learning by doing and even children who `screen watch' at the beginning - as if they're watching TV or a DVD - are eventually drawn in . Although the event seems to work well for all the children, I think it's especially good for those who need that extra boost."

For Ms Radcliffe it's about the children taking ownership of a story they've been part of.

"I also think the journey framework seems to have a psychological relevance, getting to the mountain top where they can see everything," she says. "They'll see the cave and the sea and so on, but also things more personal to them. My favourite so far is: `I can see my granny!'"

Raymond Ross,

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