Perfect role models

1st November 1996 at 00:00
Pupils from a special school have been taking drama workshops to mainstream students. Timothy Ramsden reports.

Teachers have always recognised the valuable lesson pupils learn by taking part in plays. But care is needed when people from special schools are working with and performing to those from a mainstream background.

I recall an adaptation of an Oscar Wilde story where main parts went to mainstream teenagers and the bit parts to those from special schools. All this on a repertory theatre's main stage which created "normal" theatre expectations in the audience and exposed the special-needs cast members to unsympathetic laughter.

Not so this summer at Salisbury Playhouse studio where the young cast of Moonsong included special needs and mainstream people. But the piece showed it is insufficient to hope music, movement and mysticism will provide appropriate material.

A special needs focus has to give young people the sense of driving the project, not have them propelled on stage underprepared, barely comprehending why they are doing what they were still being prompted to do from the side of the stage. Such projects do not promote the young people taking part, they relegate them. How happy then, to find a project like the West Yorkshire Playhouse's Into The Storm.

In a sense this project belonged to the students from the start. They were a group covering the teen years at Elmete Wood School in Leeds where teacher Chris Cade had for years insisted on booking visits by the Playhouse's Theatre in Education company. "Insisted" is the word; Chris Cade is certain his students have the right to experience the kind of TIE programmes going out to mainstream schools. As they lapped up material designed principally for GCSE or A-level students, why should they not go a step further and take a lead part in a TIE tour?

Students were seconded for one day a week to enable Mr Cade to develop what became Into The Storm, a play based on the story of King Lear. This was the culmination of a day-long programme which started with a workshop. From the beginning it was clear the whole programme would involve the Elmete Wood students so they would be performing in two ways: as members of the acting company in the play but also by taking a major part in the preceding workshops. In these roles, they toured high schools in Leeds during the second half of the summer term.

Performers employed by the Playhouse researched material with Elmete Wood. They then rehearsed the play, with student involvement, and the tour began.

Elmete Wood is a school for young people with moderate learning and emotional and behavioural difficulties. A TIE tour is a tough job for a hard-bitten professional. Physical and mental stamina are needed; every day means adjusting to a different performing area, with its own acoustic and spatial characteristics. Workshopping means being able to handle the reactions of different groups. What happened yesterday is only a rough guide to what will happen today. Priesthorpe School, on the eastern edge of Leeds, for example, provided a large gym where within two minutes of starting an intensively physical game called popcorn it was impossible to distinguish Elmete Wood's visitors from Priesthorpe's Year 8 students. Co-operation can be at least as great an engine as the favoured competitiveness in bringing people together and getting things done at a high level.

The main workshop session divided the 50 or so young people into those working on music and sounds and those on story and situations (some days there was also a dance group). What was most impressive was the way the Year 8 "home" students were always encouraged and supported by their "in-the-know" visitors, who they regarded as fortunate to have been integrally involved in the work.

The inclusive sense continued over lunch where Priesthorpe had taken the initiative and provided a buffet of sandwiches, crisps, cakes and soft or hot drinks, each of their students taking responsibility as host for a visitor; building the sense of collaboration. Priesthorpe's Year 8 PSE involves a module where classes host (usually an adult) visitor for a day. So natural was the communication it had to be pointed out that they had fulfilled this task through the project.

The afternoon performance looked as if it was going to give problems when one of Elmete Wood's students seemed disinclined to perform. But nerves were calmed and the play went ahead as planned, main parts taken by the TIE actors, but with significant contributions by the Elmete Wood company. At the end of the day these hardworking students spoke of the enjoyment they had found, and spoke of it in a mature way.

I started with two examples where people from special needs and mainstream backgrounds had been brought together unsuccessfully. Why did the Leeds project work so well? Because it was prepared, but also because it was owned by the Elmete Wood participants. Chris Cade had brought it into being knowing how they could be stretched and what they could achieve. The resources of the professional company were used to support the work as it evolved. Mr Cade showed himself no mean actor. But his greatest contribution had been to show how successful work can grow from within the special school community and how much can be achieved through initiating work with other agencies.

The gain has been two-way: Priesthorpe drama teacher Lesley Gibbens says her students gained a new respect for people with special needs. "They're no diferent from us," replaced previously-held stereotypes. Through the play and especially the workshop, says Ms Gibbens, her students perceived a new importance in speaking up for oneself and for others.

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