Stage craft at the Mill

13th February 2004 at 00:00
When real actors help drama students fulfil their potential, the experience gives everyone a lift. Jonathan Croall reports

With eyes shut and bodies still, 20 pupils are travelling back in time.

Chris Dickins, an actor and teacher, has asked them to recall their earliest memory. He now gives them a few prompts. "Who else was there? What sounds could you hear? What colours could you see? What were your feelings?"

Back in the present, and sitting in small groups, the pupils briefly share their memories, then stand up and act them out. Some are humorous, others mischievous, a few painful. A girl remembers her first anxious day at primary school; a boy recalls knocking the family parakeet out of its cage with his football; another girl remembers breaking her arm when being swung round in a circle by her aunt.

This exercise is just one of several that Chris Dickins and his fellow actor and teacher Angela Simms are using during this hour-long theatre workshop with a Year 10 GCSE drama group at Bulmershe school in Woodley, near Reading. Both are members of the company performing A Star Danced, a show written and directed by John Doyle at the Watermill near Newbury in Berkshire, which has a good reputation for music theatre.

Sixty GCSE drama pupils from Bulmershe have just seen the show at this beautiful, intimate converted watermill. Billed as a "fortysomething musical where Cold Feet meets This Life", the story revolves around a reunion of old friends, and how a revelation alters the balance of their friendships. As its title implies, it also draws on some of the themes in Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing, such as memory, lies and deception, and different perspectives.

The show also employs techniques such as counterpoint, in which two scenes happen in the same place at different times, or at the same time in different places, with "asides" to the audience.

"The use of asides got us talking with the kids about the idea of subtext, of what's going on in a character's mind behind their words," says Angela.

To illustrate it, she and Chris ask them to improvise a simple situation in twos or threes. They then provide each character with an additional piece of information that alters the dynamic of the scene. For instance, a boy and girl play a mother and son exchanging banalities at the breakfast table. They're then told that the son crashed the family car the night before. They play it again, first as if the mother doesn't know this, then as if she does. Each time they reveal the subtext by speaking their real thoughts as asides.

The pupils are clearly stimulated by the exercises. "It's been very helpful to learn new techniques," Jay Connor says afterwards. "We're going to try and use them in the play we've written for our practical exam."

Liam Parker is equally enthusiastic. "It's really good to have professional actors here, because we don't usually get a chance to see how they work," he says.

Matthew McCarthy, the head of drama at Bulmershe, feels the workshop has been an unqualified success. "Being so close to the actors at the Watermill was a different theatre experience for the kids, and the follow-up has been fantastic," he says. "The actors really are teaching them the vocabulary of theatre, and their work today has been very focused."

FOCUS ON THE ARTS

Bulmershe was one of five schools around Reading to benefit from the Millennium Encore Scheme, which provides funds for young people to attend arts events. The aim of the scheme, channelled through the Prince of Wales Arts amp; Kids Foundation Visits Programme, is to target those who have previously had few or none such experiences. A subsidy of up to pound;20 per head covers the cost of seats, transport and refreshments.

The Watermill runs regular workshops, most geared towards 20 to 30 participants and lasting between 90 and 100 minutes. For secondary schools and colleges, topics include Shakespeare and Directing (pound;75), for primary schools Speaking, Listening and Storytelling (pound;150). Among the topics in the theatre's inservice training programme is Literacy through Drama.

Watermill educational and community activities. Tel: 01635 45834, or www.watermill.org.uk.

Arts amp; Kids Tel: 020 7378 8143, or www.aandb.org.uk

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