The prince and the puppets;Arts;

25th June 1999 at 01:00
Finding talent and throwing hatfuls of money at it could be considered as good a way of funding children's theatre as any. At least that's what the Scottish Arts Council did last January, and already the benefits are coming through the system, first with TAG's Julius Caesar, and now with the Ayr-based Borderline Theatre Company, whose pound;200,000 lottery grant is paying for a two-year programme of youth theatre and two plays for children.

The wise and wealthy use their money to buy time, and artistic director Leslie Findlay is carefully laying the groundwork for the first of the commissioned plays, scheduled to tour Scotland a year from now. As the first step towards a production of Antoine de Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince, he has just completed a preparatory week in four Ayr primary schools.

Anita Sullivan has been commissioned to create the text - rapid promotion for a writer whose only other work for Borderline was a kind of "promenade theatre" at Ayr and Troon last summer, which she suspects did more for the tourist industry than for art.

She is excited about the commission, but is making a point of keeping all her options open, aware of the difficulties ahead. "It may be a children's classic," she says, "but it's a very adult book.

"There weren't many children in Saint-Exupery's life. The Little Prince is really Saint-Exupery himself, engaging with his own childhood. He led a rootless existence, always travelling. That's why everything happens in the desert. I love the book but I'm very curious to find out what children like about it."

The week in Ayr schools was designed with that purpose in mind. Leslie Findlay took a team of four to work all day with 60 children in drama, art and design. For the children, it was a rare chance to work creatively and expressively with a team of professionals. For the company, it was invaluable market research, the luxury of actually being able to examine the spectrum of responses to the characters and concepts of the story.

With the help of Christine Woodburn in the drama space, the children investigated the physicality of the characters - the way they would walk and talk. With puppet specialist Beth Marshall, they shaped the novel's abstractions into heads and bodies. Designer Suzanne Field helped them with airliners and caves, and with the floor covering for an interesting desert.

Anita Sullivan eavesdropped on the activities, occasionally prompting with a question or an answer, from time to time jotting something in her notebook. "They really challenge my assumptions of what children know and think," she says. "For example, they find distance quite difficult. They measure it by how long it takes to walk. And their 'describing' words are so unexpected."

Her enthusiasm for the project is evident, even though the idea was first mooted in 1997, only to be aborted by a funding cut.

Paradoxically, if money buys time, so does poverty. "I thrive on two-year interruptions," she says. "And now I have six months to come up with the first draft. Luxury!" she sighs happily.

Borderline, tel: 01292 281010

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