Play provides voice to combat impediments

24th April 2009 at 01:00
Enlightened look at overcoming speech difficulty

As the S2s spill into the large drama studio, they look decidedly unimpressed and unenthused. The boys grab the front seats, the girls lounge behind. They obviously have no expectations about what will happen next.

In the middle of the floor sit the three actors, dressed in T-shirts and jeans, looking ordinary. But within minutes, things change; the atmosphere is charged. The girls are sitting up a bit straighter. Practically every boy is sitting forward, chin in hands. One is leaning forward so far, his teacher has to pull him back.

There is no low-level chatting, no nudging neighbours. Loud laughter erupts frequently. Yet the subject isn't that funny. A boy explains his experiences at school and how he hides his "differences" to fit in. Only his dog saves him from a beating.

The play that the S2s from Wester Hailes Education Centre are watching is the culmination of months of collaboration between young people who stammer, playwright Davey Anderson and Glasgow's TAG Citizens' Theatre. Funded by the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Power, the group has produced a powerful, funny play based on real experiences where Danny, the main character, reveals to what lengths he has gone to hide his stammer.

The professional actors, Mary Gapinski, Steven Rae and William Ruane, play a variety of roles, dancing round one another in a fast and furious manner. The only constant is Mr Ruane, who plays Danny.

The idea was the brainchild of Jan Anderson, organiser of the British Stammering Association Scotland, who was looking for ways to work creatively with people who stammer. "It began as something for young people to do together, to use performance to build confidence, but then it grew bigger and bigger. With TAG expertise and direction, it expanded into the play and then into the schools programme," she says.

"We wanted to take it into schools to explore tolerance and raise awareness. And we wanted to address a period of heightened anxiety for those with speech difficulties."

The play highlights the tensions of transition; a time when stammering can re-emerge for some and make young people feel awkward. Danny deals with his problems by avoiding talking and deflecting attention onto others. On stage, Mr Ruane (who is recognised by one pupil from the film Sweet Sixteen) refuses to answer his teachers, feigns a yawn and picks on other pupils to shift attention away from himself. This works until another boy arrives at school who isn't embarrassed by his stutter.

But while the focus is on stammering, it could be anything which sets an individual apart from his or her peers. The young people at WHEC recognise this. "Drama is good because you do get to explore different things," says Enya Robertson, 13. "This was fun. We've looked at drugs and at arson and such like. Using drama makes you look at things in a different way."

The play is touring 25 secondary schools in Edinburgh, Glasgow and South Lanarkshire, but other schools will be able to benefit, as the funding has allowed TAG to film the play for a DVD and produce teacher resources to support it.

"We had hoped to put it on Glow, but Equity rules disallow that, so we are producing a DVD of which we hope (funding permitting) to send copies to schools from early summer," says Louise Brown, acting education officer at TAG Citizens.

The resource has been developed to support personal and social health education, to help classes explore diversity and tolerance. However, Bruce Henderson, drama teacher at WHEC, is to use the play in his module on bullying in the summer term. "The pupils have really engaged with the play. I saw one girl, who is a little bit challenging, telling her friends to shush," he says. "I'm delighted to receive new resources for class, especially when I know they will enjoy it."

The pupils seem delighted as well and, although there is some low-level chatting and a bit of fidgeting during the workshop after the play, hands are still flying into the air to answer questions. The young people have no difficulty in speaking out, but they do have more awareness that there are some who may.


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