Staging connections

3rd June 2005 at 01:00
The Theatre Museum has been reaching out to secondary schools and their feeder primaries - with spectacular results. Heather Neill reports

The Theatre Museum in Covent Garden, an offshoot of the Victoria Albert Museum, is an exciting, atmospheric place to visit. Here primary pupils, as well as theatre studies and drama students, can learn about make-up, costume and the history of performance and take part in practical workshops. But some schools, even within easy striking distance of central London, do not always make the most of what is on offer, so the museum's education team is going out to them - and in a very imaginative way.

Two secondary schools in widely different areas, William de Ferrers School in Essex and Queens Park Community School (attached to Brent City Learning Centre), have been invited to take part in a year-long experiment. As a result, some of the theatre's collection has been taken to both schools and students have met at the Theatre Museum and on theatre outings.

At the museum they undertook joint tours and costume and make-up demonstrations related to the Shakespeare they were studying. They also had cut-price tickets to see The Reduced Shakespeare Company together. In the autumn term last year, museum staff (of whom there are three full-time and some 30 part-time professionals) worked mainly with key stage 4-5 students.

In the spring term they developed projects with the feeder schools and this term they are involving community groups and KS3 students in the final phase.

Drama, theatre studies and English students were obvious beneficiaries. For instance, Year 13 students studying drama and theatre studies at William de Ferrers were able to borrow a video recording of the Young Vic's production of Timberlake Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good, the only version available, to help with their exam preparation. They were also able to access archive material on 18th-century acting styles, relevant to the plot of the play, and to examine costumes of the period from the museum's handling collection.

Brent students worked with Theatre Museum staff on acting techniques for Blood Brothers, a play they are studying for GCSE, and a Year 7 drama group used games and stage fighting to explore Theseus and the Minotaur.

Collingwood is one of William de Ferrers' feeder schools. Here, Adrian Deakes, education manager at the Theatre Museum (and, as it happens, once a teacher at William de Ferrers) spent Monday mornings last term with five Year 5s from Collingwood and similar numbers - boys and girls - from the other feeder schools. A side benefit of the project is that pupils from different schools will already know each other when they begin their secondary education.

The chosen medium for the Collingwood sessions was the musical, in particular Bombay Dreams. Unlike their opposite numbers in Brent, working on The Lion King, these pupils could not be taken to see the professionals sing and dance, but that did not seem to restrict their imagination as, with Adrian's help, they built up a sequence of movements to the hit song "Shakalaka Baby".

This is not a particularly multiracial area, but a few of the girls already had saris and the Theatre Museum's handling collection provided some lengths of cloth - glittery purple, leopard print, pink and orange. There was much enthusiastic winding and unwinding as the young dancers went through their Indian-inspired movements. "I taught them the seven basic movements of dance and they just flew with it, working out their own routines," says Adrian.

It's a help that Bollywood styles are so popular. Dancers tried emphasising finger movements, holding hands above heads and pointing their chins. An extra-experimental student asked: "Can I be an Indian Batman?" as he played with his sari-cum-cloak.

Each school group was spotlit in turn, which was exciting for everyone as all the schools received the whole piece on a "tour" at the end of term.

Maureen Panton, head of Collingwood, has been pleased with the piece itself and with the interaction between schools. She is also aware of the importance of the multicultural dimension in a school where this is not part of the everyday scene.

Eric Darley, head of performing arts at William de Ferrers, is also enthusiastic about the museum connection. Students other than those in the obvious English and drama departments have benefited. For instance, AS-level history students, studying cultural change since the 1950s, have been able to access material on Paul Robeson's treatment at the hands of the UnAmerican Activities Committee, and read scripts and reviews, including those for John Osborne's Look Back in Anger.

Year 10 design and technology students worked on sets for A Midsummer Night's Dream, inspired by archive material dating back to the early 20th century, while Year 10 textiles students used images from West End programmes to suggest cushion designs. The Theatre Museum's outreach work has been so successful that it is likely to be repeated in similar fashion next year.

However, this year's experiment isn't over yet. KS3 pupils from both centres will be going to the museum for a week of dance and music workshops. They are aiming to do their own version of the ballet The Sleeping Beauty - probably somewhat updated from the 1946 version, which re-opened the Opera House after the Second World War.

For details about the Theatre Museum's workshops, other projects and group bookings: 020 7943 4806 or www.theatremuseum.org.uk

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