The show must go on
Last week I was invited back to my old school - where I was head for a number of decades - to watch their summer play, and I jumped at the chance. Writing and staging the summer musical show is one of the things I miss in retirement and I was delighted that my successor was carrying on the tradition. He'd bought and produced a children's version of A Midsummer Night's Dream and it was beautifully done, an ideal introduction to enjoying Shakespeare for the children. The acting was wonderful, but then I've always considered music and drama to be primary curriculum essentials, and there's a tradition of performing excellence that's grown and been honed over the years.
Although I'd produced several plays as a deputy head in my previous school, my first production as a headteacher was plagued by problems. When I announced to the staff that I'd like to produce a play for the end of summer term I had to overcome initial resistance from the teacher who'd been doing it for years. The previous head had given her a great deal of time out of lessons to do it. Although in those days there were no tests to cram for, this had meant that her class had been taught by a succession of supply teachers and ultimately became rather ragged.
Also, I thought it would be much nicer if, instead of just using Year 6, we chose children who showed acting talent from across the school. I worked out that I could fit 150 chairs into the hall for parents, so I could have 75 children in the show, and if I did two performances each child could invite four family members.
I was keen for my teachers to be fully involved with the production, too. I would write the script, but I wanted each teacher and their children to be responsible for an aspect of the show - scoring the songs, building and painting the scenery, making the props, organising the costumes, designing the programme and choreographing the dances. Everybody seemed enthusiastic, so during a school holiday I sat down at the electric typewriter I'd been given as a leaving present from my former school and tapped out a musical version of James and the Giant Peach.
For three afternoons a week, I worked with the children, gradually moving the production forward. Rashly, to give some relief to the Year 6 teacher, I'd offered to include a handful of her most temperamental boys, one of whom fancied himself as the next Richard Burton. He upset virtually every cast member with consummate ease, and after three weeks I understood why filming Cleopatra had been such a nightmare.
Nevertheless, the play was a great success, marred only by a thunderstorm during the second performance. The children struggled to be heard and rain filtered through the holes in the roof on to the audience below. An NQT swiftly handed out dinner money tins, and the children soldiered on while drops of rain pattered into the containers.
Very quickly, the musical became an important summer event, and every child looked forward to the auditions. When it came to my very last production before retirement, my 30th, a parent said: "You must be very proud. These shows are so good my husband says they're better than the West End."
And when old pupils write to me, it's the shows they remember. Nobody yet has said thank you to me for tracking their data.
Mike Kent is a retired primary school headteacher. Email: email@example.com.