Where better to see a historical play than a Tudor mansion? Jonathan Croall joins the strolling players of the Young National Trust Theatre. We don't want to perform just to white middle-class schools that can afford it. We want to take the work to inner-city multi-racial schools as well."
Sitting in her office in Sutton House in Hackney, the oldest house in the East End of London, Laura Hetherington, administrator of the Young National Trust Theatre (YNTT), seems well placed to put such an idea into practice, as the shrill voices of children from the multi-ethnic Ram Episcopal primary school next door come floating up from the playground.
Having its headquarters in the heart of the East End certainly makes it easier for the company to attract city children to its participatory drama work. Sutton House, a rare example of a Tudor redbrick house, was built in 1535. It is one of the trust's few urban properties, and one of the venues for this year's YNTT touring production.
Flowers and Slaves focuses on life and liberty in the early Victorian period, taking as its starting-point public reaction to the marriage of the 20-year-old Queen to her "beloved Albert". "At one level of society there were great celebrations," Laura Hetherington says. "But scrape away that top layer and you find all kinds of rifts and divisions including arguments about the cost of the royal family to the taxpayer, and the right of ordinary people to decent working conditions and housing."
The new drama, aimed at key stage 2 and 3 children, is set in a country house belonging to a mill owner, who wants to interest local gentry and businessmen in a scheme to expand his mill. Children, in costume, examine social and moral issues by taking part as potential investors, mill workers or itinerant labourers. The role of women is also covered, notably when a young woman refuses to let her uncle and father make decisions about her marriage. Money and social class are other perennial themes. "It's important that whatever period the children are studying, it's also a way of learning about today, " says Laura Hetherington.
The YNNT is seen by more than 7,000 schoolchildren annually, with about 140 schools a year booking in to its production at one of nine venues. The company was established in 1977 when John Hodgson, later the trust's first full-time education officer, was approached by Dot McRee, a theatre director. A performance at Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire convinced key trust officers that the idea had a future. Since then the company has roamed far and wide over the historical landscape, including the reigns of Mary, Elizabeth, Charles II, and Victoria, the Civil War and 1929 to a "Land Fit for Heroes". The company of six actors all have theatre in education or drama teaching experience draw the children into the action.
There has been fine-tuning in response to comments from schools over the years teachers are asked to fill in an evaluation form after each production. "At the beginning there was a lot of action and display; we had a reputation for rushing in and waving swords about," Laura Hetherington says. "Now we try to deepen the experience, to make it one which gets the children to think and feel." In the past, the company has tried to meet teachers' needs in terms of topics or periods, but these days, given the constraints of the national curriculum, it is almost impossible to stray outside the Tudor or Victorian periods.
Because the production is seen as a partnership between the company and the schools, the YNTT has introduced free briefing days for teachers at the properties. "Many tend to be nervous of drama teaching, which makes it harder for children to get in to the 'as if' process," Laura Hetherington suggests.
Preparation beforehand is seen as vital if the activity is to work effectively. With this in mind, participating schools are sent an illustrated resource book, containing background information, primary sources songs, documents, cartoons and details of how to prepare for the performance.