Tour de force

17th January 1997 at 00:00
A national children's theatre is about to be launched with Shakespeare and an adaptation of the epic poem Beowulf. Simon Tait explains how it came into being

A national children's theatre is about to spring from the husk of Michael Bogdanov's English Shakespeare Company, which all but folded two-and-a-half years ago for lack of funding.

At Mold in north Wales on January 27 the National Children's Touring Theatre opens Bogdanov's adaptation of the Anglo-Saxon saga poem Beowulf, the start of a six-month tour which takes the play to 20 middle-scale theatres in tandem with a new production by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

This, Bogdanov says, is a new generation of the Theatre-in-Education idea, moving beyond the realm of the classroom but still with workshops and teachers' packs and laced into the national curriculum.

Through 1997 the search will be on for a likely permanent home, however, from which to send productions out. "A national children's theatre is necessary now", Bogdanov says, "in order to get a proper touring policy operating, and I think things are changing. There is a change in British theatres and we need to commission proper writers to do new work for regional theatres which have had a diet of post West End productions, revived West End shows, and big touring productions.

"Children have consistently been unrepresented in touring. They are not part of theatre priorities, and they have not been treated as part of the community or of society. I think it's appalling that they're still being offered Beauty and the Beast, The Snow Queen, Sleeping Beauty and so on, however good the productions, because that's what companies can get funding for. There has to be some advance in the theatre, with children being treated more like adults. "

The ESC stopped touring when the Arts Council changed its mind about funding a tour of Bogdanov's adaptation of Goethe's Faust (later produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company), when his co-founder, Michael Pennington, stormed out of the negotiations and then out of the company. But although the operation was wound up, props and costumes were stored against the ESC's revival.

The advance from the ESC days has been impressive, and not in the direction Bogdanov had expected. The launch of the National Children's Touring Theatre has been made possible by the striking success of educational schools' tours of the past 18 months under the auspices of the ESC - at that time called English Shakespeare Company International, or ESCi.

It began with a conversation at the ESC's farewell party at the Old Vic in July 1994. Bogdanov himself was long committed to theatre for children and had had successful National Theatre productions of mythological poems - Hiawatha, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Ancient Mariner, and Reynard the Fox, which had been in repertory at Hamburg's Schauspielhaus for four years during Bogdanov's tenure there as artistic director.

Chris Geelan, who had been working with the ESC's successful education department, told Bogdanov of his hopes, and those of his wife, Sarah Gordon, to take Shakespeare into primary and secondary schools. Bogdanov told them to work something up and gave them Pounds 2,000 from his own account for expenses. The ESC in association with the GeelanGordon Buttonhole Theatre had already broken new ground by taking Macbeth and A Midsummer Night's Dream to primary schools, with workshops and animated lectures. "People thought we were mad - taking Shakespeare, difficult enough for adults, to seven to 11-year-olds, and some are still very opposed to it now," says Sarah Gordon, who was also involved in the National Theatre's First Stages project.

So the new ESC was born in the front room of their Ladbroke Grove home. They created the Shakespeare Experience, an all-day workshop for 13 to 16-year-olds on Romeo and Juliet, the Dream and Macbeth. Later came the A Level Project, a performance-led workshop for sixth formers, and the primary storytelling workshops continue.

Within a year success was established, and Bogdanov stepped up the operation by bringing back Graham Lister, the ESC's former production administrator who had moved on to West End productions, and Sue Evans, his own PA, to create a management team with the Buttonhole duo. They were employed on Equity minimum wages.

"We approached it from a purely commercial standpoint," Lister says. "We knew the idea of Shakespeare for primary schools was a good one, but we needed to be able to provide exactly what teachers needed to get the most out of a visit for their kids."

The primary schools operation would cover ten schools in a week for two hour storytelling workshops. "We don't tell them it's Shakespeare," Gordon says. "We're using Shakespeare, not celebrating him." Children are told the story, then the actors open up the session with demonstrations, children are given roles, and a workshop leader acts as narrator while the children create their own Dream.

In the Shakespeare Experience, geared to 14 and 15-year-olds and GCSE, the schools choose one of three plays offered, and five actors and a leader run five workshops for up to 30 children each, working up to a 90-minute performance. Teachers are asked to write evaluations of the experience, and to one which arrived just before Christmas from a Wiltshire junior school the head teacher had added: "You enriched and broadened young minds and opened them up to a whole world of new possibilities and experiences - that is the essence of education."

In the last year, 55,000 children have attended the workshops, at a time when theatre-based TIE operations such as Coventry Belgrade's have been cut for lack of subsidy, and they have provided the financial bedrock, with an annual turnover of Pounds 275,000, to launch the National Children's Touring Theatre. Until now there has been no subsidy, but the new tour has a small grant from the Arts Council of Pounds 26,500 and a Foundation for Sport and the Arts grant of Pounds 40,000. But what has been salutary has been the support of the theatres for the new venture. Nine of them have offered guarantees against loss, which is the equivalent of a Pounds 400,000 underwriting.

"Theatres have been staggered that the schools are so absolutely positive in their response," Lister says, but the pledges are the result of painstaking groundwork, according to Geelan. "It has meant being able to say to theatre managements that there are so many schools in the area, that they are within half an hour of the theatre, that they have all said they would take a group to the show," he said.

From the end of January, three full companies will be on the road with two versions of A Midsummer Night's Dream - one for secondary pupils and one for juniors, and Beowulf aimed at keystages 2 and 3. With the established ESCi workshops, there will be 11 productions altogether on the road from their new Southwark headquarters in 1997.

Beowulf, Gordon acknowledges, is shifting into another gear. It had already existed in a form with which Bogdanov had toured Denmark, Austria and Germany, where it had won an award as the best touring play. But now it has been adapted again for 8 to 14-year-olds. "The national curriculum talks about 'reading myths and legends', 'poetry from oral and literary traditions' and 'texts from other cultures and traditions' in keystages 2 and 3," says Gordon. "Beowulf covers all that."

The teachers' pack she has devised requires no previous knowledge of the text by either teacher or pupil. Story-telling opens out into scene-setting, role playing, problem solving, developing the narrative, and performing the action of the saga.

Geelan puts the ESC work in context: "I would say that as many as 80 per cent of workshops being taken into schools are not good enough. Actors are expected to make it up as they go along, and it's not a fulfilling experience for them, the teachers or the pupils. We rehearse every detail to a formula we know works, but with enough flexibility to make each workshop unique."

Shakespeare is now so well ingrained in drama workshops for both secondary and primary schools that with the first National Children's Touring Theatre programme Shakespeare is being used as a kind of Trojan Horse to bring other drama to young audiences. Next might be a revival of one of Bogdanov's old National Theatre ballad productions, but a new play is more likely. "We have to get plays written by proper playwrights for young audiences. They are worth it," he says.

Bogdanov hopes that the change he detects in theatre attitudes to drama for young audiences will manifest itself in the funding agencies. Too much is taken out of the shrinking Arts Council touring budget by the National Theatre and the RSC, on top of their revenue funding, to tour productions, he says. The demand has been identified and the pragmatic theatre circuit is convinced that children's theatre is viable. The National Lottery might hold the answer, with the relaxing of the guidelines, and informal conversations have already taken place with Prudence Skene, the chairman of the Arts Council's Lottery Board, which seem promising - she is a former administrator of the ESC.

Enquiries about both the schools tours and the National Children's Touring Theatre tour can be made to the English Shakespeare Company on 0171 403 1515

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