Take a project, add a writer with a plan and what you have is a brilliant lesson
Against ever-tightening financial constraints, schools are being selective when it comes to using outside agencies, looking for a strong link to the curriculum and value for money. Play in a Day meets those criteria with ease, but there are many other reasons why this project is becoming so popular across central Scotland.
The brainchild of Allan Dunn, a drama writer who was part of the children's theatre group The Happy Gang and now writes for Scottish Opera for Kids, the Aberdeen International Youth Theatre and the BBC, Play in a Day involves him going into a school and tackling a project that the children have already been working on, such as the Vikings or Jacobites.
Prior to starting, he looks at their written work, the songs they've listened to and the pictures they've drawn, and drafts a loose storyline for the children to develop. So on meeting the class, he can plunge them straight into action with a series of fun drama games leading up to improvising storylines and little scenes.
"The success of a Play in a Day lies partly in the preparation I do beforehand and partly in engaging the children from the beginning," says Mr Dunn. "The teacher will have provided me with the relevant information, so I come in geared towards working in an area the children are already informed about and comfortable with. But the one luxury we don't have is time and we need to make that work for us."
The aim is to produce a play that can last between 15 and 40 minutes, ready to be performed to the rest of the school at the end of the day. It sounds daunting but, according to Mr Dunn, the sense of an impending deadline brings out the best in everyone.
"You have to move away from the traditional concept of putting a play together," he explains. "Summer play schemes, for example, will have a week in which to get everything organised, but that will also have to include the inevitable distractions of costume dramas, where they all take a couple of hours to get used to seeing themselves dressed up.
"For Play in a Day, it's all about improvising effectively, so the most we'll have done in costume preparation in advance is asking the children to make swords or head dresses to give a flavour of the setting."
Although it seems like a monumental effort to have an entire class memorising lines, in reality each child is given very concise instructions. "I'll say: `You're here and this is what you're going to say' and that will be a line or two," he explains. "Make it funny or add an amusing action and you're on to a winner - kids love comedy and, although we're making it up as we go along, it isn't ad-libbing. If they know where they're meant to be and what they're meant to say, then it's going to work."
Eventually they will turn the project into four five-minute scenes, adding songs the children already know and teaching them dance routines. "It covers so many topics that I can adapt any project a class is already working on," says Mr Dunn. "It incorporates history, drama, writing, team work, dance, initiative and leadership - and working to a deadline like that has its own rewards in terms of excitement and adrenalin really stirring everyone up to get involved and produce something to be proud of."
If the school wants to spend more time on a two-day project, he can write original songs and bring in choreography, which usually requires someone else working with him and gives the option of getting more children involved.
Gartmore Primary in Stirling used Mr Dunn for three days in the creation of an ambitious project that resulted in a musical on the life of Mary Queen of Scots, performed in Stirling Castle in June, as well as in their school.
Headteacher David Scott says: "The project was cross-curricular, involving language development and stimulating writing for an obvious purpose. The children had lots of ideas they needed put down in dramatic form for them to work, and that is where Allan came in, developing the script with them. He was great at enthusing them with lots of pupil-led games and interactive sessions, and created fantastic imagery with them - in one scene there was a boat in a storm at sea and the children were both the boat and the waves.
"Each class member was effectively contributing to the performance through research, words or song, with an exciting and motivating foundation to display their learning. The pupils developed their confidence preparing to perform in front of family, friends and invited guests, and the Curriculum for Excellence capacity of `effective contributors' was enhanced as they engaged with parents, scriptwriters, and Historic Scotland education officers in a variety of locations."