Our school of fame

3rd February 2006 at 00:00
Dalbeattie High turned talent academy as a stage production was built into classwork for half a term, Brian Hayward writes

In a bold act of creative education, Dalbeattie High pushed the textbooks and worksheets aside for almost half of last term and let theatre drive the curriculum.

Turning the school hall into a stage and making 100 pupils into a theatre company may seem like a Utopian, visionary experiment, but it began with pupils at the small Dumfries and Galloway school (with a roll of just 370) simply asking their school council for more drama.

As far as headteacher David Wallace was concerned, they were pushing at an open door and giving him yet another way of making school real.

He called in Anne Campbell of Create, Dumfries and Galloway Council's creative education arts team, and she recommended the TAG Theatre company.

The idea began to roll, gently at first, with TAG working its global citizenship programme for a week.

Next came a drama week in October, with the theatre company working alongside teachers.

"We linked it mainly with English," explains Simon Mein, principal teacher (curriculum), who co-ordinated the theatre company and classroom.

"It was built into classwork for S1-S4 and, although it was optional for the seniors, almost all of the 95 students in the fifth and sixth years got involved.

"Our intention was to use this drama week to piggy-back more drama work, but the idea took on its own momentum."

The idea was for TAG director Guy Hollands to direct public performances of Friedrich Duerrenmatt's The Visit in the school hall, with a cast of pupils and members of the local Birchvale Players, with sponsorship from the town.

As much of the production and marketing as possible would be done by pupils, guided by TAG professionals, "It's a perfect fit," says Mr Hollands. "It's a tragicomedy set in a similar kind of town as Dalbeattie, a place with a sense of continuity and community. It's the story of a scorned woman who returns decades later to wreak her revenge. And there's no other way you can do this great play justice. You need a crowd of townspeople, and no theatre can afford that."

Among the townsfolk were a handful of what Mr Hollands calls "big playing parts"; others were taken by the pupils. However, a larger crowd never actually saw the stage.

Some of these were able to use the production work towards their qualifications. For example, teacher Kirsty Simmons seized the opportunity for her social and vocational skills Standard grade class to do the marketing and front-of-house work, as these fitted neatly with "running a community event" and "providing a (local or community) service".

"It's been excellent working with TAG," she says, "It's been very pacy, but the kids appreciate that; it's the timescale they like. They also like the real life aspect, that what they do really matters."

This was echoed by one of her pupils. Carolann Glendinning paused from counting ticket money to say the project had made her feel "more reliable, more trusted".

Learning support teacher Anne McAteer's Asdan activities group helped with the marketing in various ways, art classes designed posters for the production and the woodwork classes built the set.

Music students were joined by a few unschooled rock 'n' rollers to form the band for the occasion. With the help of Glasgow's Citizens Theatre composer Matilda Brown, they wrote half of the incidental music (Ms Brown wrote the rest), trying to match their perceptions of the characters and the play's moods to their instruments.

"I'd like to do more of this work with them, if only there were time," Ms Brown says, "The quality of their playing is at first year university level."

Looking back, Mr Hollands is delighted about the way the production united the school and the positive impact it had on the town.

"The school has been a thrilling environment, full of excitement, with kids, S1 and S5 side by side, working everywhere.

"There were times when Moley Campbell, our designer, could hardly keep up with the demands for work by those building the set.

"The senior management have been wonderful. Simon Mein is totally student-focused. At every turn his first question is: 'What's the benefit for the kids?' or 'What can they do here?' He has persuaded us to give more and more responsibility to them. The result has been a huge amount of learning, in real situations.

"There should be more of this kind of work in schools. I'd like to see TAG do three a year, but the trouble with performing arts is that funding never strikes twice."

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