Pan helps pupils grow up
Warning signals were flagged up by Visible Fictions, the Glasgow-based theatre-in-education company, at the end of its Scottish tour last week. As it prepares to take its impressive Peter Pan to England and Ireland, it has been dismayed by the reluctance of teachers, in many of the 40-plus schools it has worked in, to accept the supercharge drama can give to a child's learning, or know what boxes it ticks.
Though VF knows its technique is challenging, it is saddened as much by teachers who "just don't get it" as by those who remain indifferent. It pointed at the schools' performance we had watched at the Byre Theatre, disturbed by two teachers leaving for a coffee because their watches said "morning interval".
VF blames this on a "very uncertain time in education, where the structures are not working and teachers are demotivated". The company's answer has been to work on a long-term basis with a core group of sympathetic schools and authorities, and build creative and dynamic partnerships with classroom teachers.
In every authority, the "Pan project" was based on the trio of a theatre, a secondary school, and its feeder primaries. In Fife, where the tour ended, St Andrews was one of five such trios, with its Byre, Madras College and six primary feeders. The items in this group are significant for a company whose education work aims to "build an audience", though to grow a theatre audience by cultivating the upper primaries is only to plant orchards for others.
More believable is the VF desire to create a genuine theatre experience for young people, relevant to their lives. So for the 10 weeks before they see the show, arts workers have been in the upper primaries, exploring the themes and encouraging the children to react to the story through an art medium. In the St Andrews group, the primaries each produced a short film, publicly shown on site and in the Byre. I saw the effect after the performance, meeting Jenny Cunningham of Wormit Primary with some pupils who spoke perceptively of their experiences.
All this arts education would count for less if it was not climaxed with a genuine, relevant theatre experience. Douglas Irvine, the VF artistic producer, went back to Barrie's novel and sifted through the themes. He kept the role of parents, the place for stories, and childhood fears, the argument of whether it is better to be a girl or a boy, and used them to support his main theme of "growing up", for putting away childish things and moving on, as his target audience soon will when they move to secondary school.
At the core of the project was the idea of bringing in an Italian shadow theatre to create the "shadowland" of the Never-Never World. What a difference in the Byre Theatre when the "real" Captain Hook stepped out of the shadows - but the children's imagination fed on these cardboard cut-outs. When, for example, Wendy flies away with Peter, the two very flesh-and-blood actors simply stand on the stage while a torch is lowered on the sheet behind them. "How do you make them fly?" begged a baffled boy afterwards.
With a text and direction so rich in detail, the production is almost too complex for a single viewing. But Irvine knows that. He knows an audience takes what it can, chooses what interests it. Perhaps that is the problem with theatre: we tick our own boxes.