All 32 of Scotland's education authorities were invited to put on a show at the Millennium Dome in the coming year and only one declined. Julie Morrice reports on some of the plans and preparations being made.
Ask your average person on the streets of Aberdeen or Kilmarnock what they think of the Millennium Dome in Greenwich and the chances are you will get a dismissive shrug and some bitter talk about Londoners, short-sighted government and money wasting. When the New Millennium Experience Company began approaching education authorities in Scotland, they got a similar response.
"People felt it was nothing to do with them," says Alison Sinclair, the NMEC's education manager for Scotland, "and there was some initial reluctance to getting involved. But as they heard how other authorities were progressing, they got more confident and realised that the McDonald's Our Town Story project is making the millennium experience a lot more relevant to us in Scotland."
McDonald's Our Town Story offers every education authority in the UK an opportunity to blow their own trumpet and celebrate their local communities in the Dome's specially-constructed 500-seat theatre. Each group has been given a date in 2000, and on that day they will give three 20-minute performances. With McDonald's offering to pay for transport and accommodation at Rotherhithe youth hostel, and a pound;10,000 grant from NMEC for each production, the assurances about curriculum enhancement and once-in-a-lifetime experiences are almost unnecessary.
Thirty-one of the 32 Scottish education authorities have signed up for their day in the Dome. South Ayrshire is the one council which has decided not to take part. "There is nothing sinister about the decision," says Jim Rae, head of communications. "There are so many projects our schools are involved in and this just wasn't one we wanted to put at the top of the heap. It doesn't mean our schools won't be involved - in fact five tapestries made by our primary pupils will be on display at the Dome."
A party of 100 children from each authority can be accommodated on the Dome trip - that's more than 3,000 Scottish children. But it was always hoped that there would be a legacy beyond the lucky few, says Alison Sinclair. Many authorities have used the Our Town Story performance as a jumping-off point for wider-reaching events, so that every corner of their area feels the benefit of the millennium project.
Sky TV will present a local screening of each performance, so that those who cannot make the journey will be able to see the performance "nearly live". And busloads of wellwishers will no doubt make the long trip south. A Campbeltown travel agent is offering door-to-dome transport and three nights' accommodation for pound;200.
"We all know about the stunning IT and the holograms, but here are real children having the adventure of a lifetime," says Alison Sinclair.
JANUARY 5. STIRLING.
Carol Voderman picked Stirling's name out of a hat two years ago and announced that it would be the first authority to perform at the Dome. So two days ago, on January 5, a multimedia expression of Stirling's past, present and future hit the Our Town theatre.
The 20-minute performance ricocheted through 1,000 years of local history and blasted out into the imagined future, all in a compilation of music, drama, dance, art and design. Narration by a sixth-year pupil looking back at old schooldays and a primary pupil looking forward was interspersed with scenes of childhood through the ages, from Victorian children playing with hoops and diabolos in the street, to computer whizz-kids singing "We are the kids of the digital age, surfing along on life's superhighway".
The drama was played out against a high-tech computer projection, juxtaposing images of the Wallace Monument and other important local icons with pupils' designs for the architecture, clothing and machinery of the future.
Trying to encompass the past, present and future of a town in 20 minutes is a brave feat, but Stirling's millennium education development officer, Lyn McAndrew, thinks they hit the right note. "Local people were thrilled that it was modern and forward-looking, not caught up in the past. Local history has been a big part of our curriculum, but this has really made the pupils think about the future.
"It might also make visitors to the Dome think of something other than Mel Gibson when they hear about Stirling."
Workshops with dance, design, music and drama specialists took place all over the area during the past year, and were videoed for future staff development. "Every single school has been involved, and everybody feels involved in the performance," says Lyn McAndrew. "We didn't want it to be a disposable thing that was done and forgotten. All the schools are being given a copy of the CD-Rom and script of the piece so they can give their own performance." There was also a local performance of the show before it went to London.
"I never thought in a million years I would be dancing at the Dome," says one Stirling pupil.
"It's really made me think about the future," says a Primary 6 boy from Fallin, a former mining village outside Stirling, "because I realise the possibility that my children could do something different."
"Ordinary people can do big things," says Lyn McAndrew. "I really feel we've achieved something here."
MARCH 4. EAST AYRSHIRE.
A brass band, a choir, Robert Burns and sculptures of swimmers might seem unlikely bedfellows, but East Ayrshire's offering for the Dome on March 4 is a combination of all these.
The centrepiece of the presentation is a new composition for choir and brass band that was specially commissioned from Warrington-based composer Goff Richards. The piece, still nameless and unwritten in mid-December, will be a setting of Burns's poetry, specifically extracts from "Godly Girzie", "Tam Samson's Elegy", "The Ordination" and "Holy Fair", which mention Kilmarnock.
"The text will have a definite local link and that will colour the music," says Richards, "but I won't be trying to make overtly Scottish musical statements.
"The brass band scoring will have to be sympathetic to the choir so they can be heard, but I imagine there will also be unaccompanied singing and places where the band play alone."
Richards is well used to unusual combinations of musical forces. He recently composed a piece for a symphony orchestra, massed choirs, brass band, Irish folk group, jazz pianist and opera singer, and has written a pop cantata lasting an hour-and-a-half for the populace of Barnsley.
He has often worked with young people and is expecting great things of the East Ayrshire ensemble. "I want to write something that will stretch them just slightly, that will be interesting for them to play.
"The great value of music in education is that you can participate in it almost up until your last breath. And brass bands in particular break down age barriers. You can get a 14-year-old sitting next to someone of 70 years."
The performance at the Dome will take place in front of projected scenes of East Ayrshire and local pupils' artwork. Outside the theatre will be a display of sculptures created by senior secondary pupils at a summer school last year. "The theme was water, because if you have people partly submerged you don't need to do all the arms and legs," laughs sculptor Shona Kinloch, who led the workshops.
The pupils made their sculptures in chicken wire and clay, and then cast them in plaster. "A week wasn't really long enough, especially since the pieces just grew and grew," says Kinloch. "Then they coloured them. They went wild with wax polish and enamel paints and all kinds of things. They look fantastic."
MAY 2. DUMFRIES AND GALLOWAY.
Arrivals and departures is the theme of the Dumfries and Galloway project, and they hope to make their trip to the Dome for May 2 by sea and air, taking the Stena Line ferry from Stranraer to Belfast and then flying to London. Stena is an associate sponsor of the event, and the ferry boasts the only McDonald's outlet in the area. Fifty of the pupils involved in the Dome project have already been taken across by Stena to meet their Belfast counterparts.
Iain Clark, a retired headteacher, is the driving force behind the performance, which he hopes will begin with satellite pictures of the area from the West Freugh satellite tracking station. "We will zoom in from outer space to the Rinns of Galloway, then we'll begin with the earliest hunter-gatherers who were living on Luce Bay as early as 6000bc."
The performance involves pupils from Stranraer Academy plus its nine associated primary schools, and will feature the first performance of a new Scottish country dance, the Stranraer 2YK reel, with the dancers wearing millennium tartan. Through mime and short dialogues, performers will evoke the different people who have visited and colonised the area over the centuries: early Christians, Vikings, the Covenanters. There will be pieces about the Arctic explorer Sir John Ross; Portpatrick's days as a busy link between Edinburgh and Dublin; the Second World War air base at Stranraer; and the sinking of the Princess Victoria, the early roll-on roll-off ferry which was lost with 130 lives on January 31, 1953.
"I have copies of the actual radio transmissions that were sent on that day between the Victoria, the lifeboat and the shore," says Iain Clark. "I'm going to have four people with Morse keys at the corners of the stage and a voiceover of the messages.
"It has to be handled sensitively. There were a lot of Stranraer people lost and it's still a two-edged subject here."
SEPTEMBER 6. SHETLAND.
V ikings, oil terminals, fiddlers, sealife, treeless landscape I these are some of the cliches associated with Shetland. "Well, we asked local children what Shetland means to them and they didn't come up with any of those," says Paul Johnstone, the millennium officer for Shetland Council. "What they talked about was the security of living on Shetland, the sense of being part of a large family, the fun and freedom they have to play in and around the water.
"The downside was the lack of a cinema, a bowling alley or a McDonald's, and the 14-hour boat trip to access any of the above."
All these ideas and many more are the basis of "S is for Shetland: Postcards from the Edge". This will be "a series of multimedia postcards about what it is really like to live on Shetland", featuring gigantic postcards, video postcards and postcards coming to life.
Paul Johnstone wants to involve all of the island's schools and aims to make the centrepiece of the project a summer arts fair on Shetland, with the trip to Greenwich as an added extra. He hopes the Swan, a 19th-century herring drifter, will make the trip from Shetland to moor outside the Dome, and that local bands will perform on outside stages.
"When Shetland comes to the Dome in September it's going to be a bit of a Viking invasion," he says with relish.
SEPTEMBER 7. CLACKMANNANSHIRE.
C lackmannanshire's day at the Dome is not until September 7, but already 14 of the authority's 24 schools are involved. "We want to get a true cross-section of ages and abilities, a real representation of Clackmannanshire," says Rosa MacPherson, the development officer for millennium projects.
She is impressed by the children's response to representing their community. "They don't want a whitewash," she says. "They want to show it like it really is."
Rosa MacPherson thinks it has been an eye-opener for the pupils to look at where they live from the perspective of a stranger. "You realise how unique it is," she says, "even a small example, like Alva Primary School, which has a burn running through it, where the children can see otters and herons. It removes a skin of familiarity."
Looking at local communities has been an aspect of a recent Clackmannan project with TAG theatre, as part of the company's three-year "Making the Nation" arts education initiative celebrating the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. "They have been creating their own imaginary, ideal community," says Rosa MacPherson, "looking at economics, ethics, morals and the role of politics."
Pupils from six local schools have discussed these issues with MSPs and the project led to a debate in the main chamber of the Parliament last month. "I'm sure all that will feed into the Our Town project," she says, "and help them to look objectively at where and how they live."