Pupils warm to an Arctic adventure

1st June 2012 at 01:00
An eco-friendly stage production of a popular children's tale leads by example on the road to conservation and protecting endangered species. Julia Horton reports

Yobbish wolves howl and sing drunkenly outside an Arctic off-licence in the town of Walrus, where the local "grogman" stands silently looking glazed, apparently also a little the worse for wear.

Pupils giggle delightedly as they watch, and eagerly accept when the drunken drinks salesman suddenly darts among them, distributing balled-up white-sock "snowballs", which they are encouraged to fling at an unlikely- looking, elderly polar explorer.

Not that they dislike him - far from it. Earlier, their hands had shot up when the adventurous and eccentric grandfather requested help to unfurl a map to guide him and his dog, Roo, to the North Pole.

He describes his self-appointed quest - to see the last polar bears in the wild before the sea ice melts away, threatening to wipe out the creatures entirely.

The Last Polar Bears is based on an environmental adventure story of the same name by Scottish children's book author, Harry Horse. Inspired by the spirit of the play, and keen to lead by example, the cast and crew of the National Theatre of Scotland production decided to put on an eco-friendly version of the show.

In their first carbon-light tour of Scottish primaries, the NTS team has cycled 300 miles from East Ayrshire to Edinburgh, visiting more than a dozen schools in four weeks - carrying all their props and costumes with them.

Their bikes, which were specially designed for the job and created using reclaimed materials, also form part of the set. A postman pedals on one of the bicycles while delivering the old man's endless letters telling his grandson back home about his antics. Others are positioned to help support a cloth backdrop painted with Arctic scenes, while a single wheel is used to steer the ship which the grandfather boards to venture north.

Sanquhar Primary near Dumfries is the third school in the tour and the first where the team is performing solely to older pupils. Although initially some youngsters look uncertain about the sock puppets which are used to great effect to create the wolves, the four-strong cast - led by the renowned Scots actor Tam Dean Burn as the old man - soon captivate the P5s, 6s and 7s.

Shannon Struthers, 11, grins as she recalls her favourite part, when Roo refuses to wear socks to warm his frozen feet because they are purple.

The educational messages have not been lost, however, as she also spots the deliberate misplacement of an unfortunate penguin, which Roo explains to the confused grandfather should be in the Antarctic, not the Arctic.

Shannon agrees: "I didn't think you could have them and polar bears in the same place."

Greig Houston, also 11, who like Shannon is doing cycling proficiency classes at school, is clearly impressed by the NTS team's marathon biking effort.

"They're cycling all the way!" he says. "I liked the play. I learned that it's unfair to keep polar bears somewhere with no ice (as the grandfather says when describing a zoo)."

At some schools, classes have cycled out to meet the performers as they arrive in town, pulling bike trailers loaded with gear behind them.

The team also conducts workshops at schools, exploring climate change through drama by encouraging pupils to pretend they have created ice sculptures which then melt.

Other activities include composing raps about what they can each do to combat global warming, such as switching lights off when they are not needed.

At Sanquhar, principal teacher Lindy Clark believes the play can be used for a wide range of follow-up lessons across the curriculum.

She says: "The first thing that struck me was the puppetry. The Eco School here has been looking at Africa, so this is a very different area which could be the next step, looking at the melting of the polar ice caps.

"There's a lot of breadth there. You could take it forward as an eco thing, or a drama thing, or as natural history. You could also do technical work, looking at the set."

"The pupils definitely wanted to interact," she tells director Joe Douglas, who adapted the play and stars as the Walrus "grogman".

Explaining his motivation just before starting the tour, which ends today, Mr Douglas said he had wanted to find a way of making theatre that "really engaged with Mother Nature in Scotland, rather than just driving over her in a car".

"The Last Polar Bears - at its heart - is about a seemingly impossible quest and having the strength to carry on," he says. "Like the grandfather in the story who sets off to the North Pole, I'm a bit scared - I don't even really know if it's possible, but I feel like it's important to try."

Now his idea has become reality and is inspiring pupils and teachers, although he admits there have been a few problems with the bikes.

"We've had to stop a few times, which was hard. It was quite cold and the day it was sunny, we were cycling up Sorn Hill, so we were complaining about that, too!"

On-the-road producer and bike captain Colin Clark, says the project highlights NTS's commitment to the environment.

"The NTS has always had a very clear environmental policy. This project manifests artistically what the NTS already does behind the scenes," he says.

Meanwhile, Mr Dean Burn agrees that the cycling is "hard going", but true to the character he plays, he beams, and adds: "That makes it enjoyable, though."

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