Pupils at Tuke School in south London are used to being in the limelight. Tom Deveson discovers how teenagers with learning difficulties learn how to hold the stage with panache.
In recent years the hall of Tuke School in Peckham, London has been transformed into many different places - the glittering palace of an Italian Renaissance tyrant, the hard impersonal pavements of Manhattan, the dry desert of biblical Palestine, the brawling slums of Dickensian London. These metamorphoses have been effected by the school's pupils in their regular series of plays, and the inspiration has come from their drama teacher, Laurence Gallio.
Mr Gallio started out as a performer in cabaret and street theatre. He also played some roles on television and the fringe, notably that of Eddy in Steven Berkoff's Greek. Now at Tuke, he is a class teacher with responsibility for science and French in the school. Last year he received a special commendation in the national Teacher Awards.
Tuke provides for about 50 teenagers with Down's Syndrome, autism and other severe learning difficulties. Drama productions involve the whole school community, with teachers, learning support assistants and parents all caught up in the event, and the adjacent primary school providing part of the audience.
The performances are uncompromisingly theatrical, with lights and live and recorded music playing vital roles in steering the narrative to what is always a thrilling climax, whether it be Aristotle's "fear and pity" or the joy of reconciliation.
Several times Tuke pupils have taken the three-mile bus journey to Shakespeare's Globe, to take part in the annual festival where Southwark schools give imaginative life to the phrase "Our Theatre". Tuke pupils have performed the soothsayer scene from Julius Caesar, provided a stunning mimed prologue to the Merchant of Venice, and delivered the final scene of Romeo and Juliet in a manner that left many of the packed audience in tears.
The relative strangeness of the venue and the open-air bustle of the Globe have not daunted the confidence of these young actors. The qualities of imagination, patience and humour needed by street performers are prominent during rehearsals in the school. Laurence Gallio begins by selecting a story with a strong narrative shape and then draws a simplified line through it, splitting it into about 10 clear episodes. Because many pupils find it hard to memorise slabs of language, each scene needs to be carefully blocked, with props, exits, entrances and movements all outlined, so that brief episodes of speech - sometimes improvised, sometimes a memorised phrase - can fit within a structure that feels physically familiar. Music plays a vitl role. Laurence Gallio's own notable skills as a musician and the added gifts of Julia Garling, the school's very talented music therapist, create a wealth of sounds and songs that act as mnemonic prompts and establish dramatic mood, pace and continuity.
Rehearsals for last term's Oliver Twist - using some of Lionel Bart's songs but with Dickens's dark vision restored to the centre of what can otherwise seem an antiquarian romp - began with warm-up activities. Then each scene was talked and walked through ("this is not a performance so we can stop") with constant reminders to the cast about the nature of the particular mise-en-scene. There was intense seriousness and purposefulness blended with immense fun and anticipation of pleasure. Laurence Gallio moved freely between the roles of teacher, director and Dickensian character: continually praising students for gestures or stage business they were doing well, encouraging them when they looked blank, reassuring them by recalling their achievements in the classroom as an added incentive, and taking infinite pains over details of angles and placement.
The current piece in production is the scene in Macbeth where he goes back to visit the three witches and sees the visions of the armed head, the bloody child, and the show of eight kings headed by Banquo. It will be performed on the stage of Shakespeare's Globe on March 29.
Rehearsals are full of the unexpected, even for the most prepared of teachers. Students' own suggestions need to be heard and adapted. Banquo, rather than swaggering on stage as a regal patriarch, comes crawling and staggering as a man recently murdered. The story is advanced through telling images such as these. Some of Shakespeare's lines are sung rather than spoken; they are modified, but not altered into something false.
Students may not be able to articulate fully the significance of the roles they take from different dramas, but their emotional impact is unequivocal. Whether it is Bill Sikes striking Nancy across the face, and holding the pose with a malevolent glare, or Joseph sharing his rueful indignation at Mary's news that the journey to Bethlehem will involve a birth, Tuke actors draw on the traditions and retain their scenic power.
Edward Bond has a memorable quote about drama: "It is the source of the self-knowledge that saves us from ignorance of others and so it is the basis of community." At Tuke School, students whose academic education is gained under great difficulties come through drama to a greater grasp of the world they live in and their potential within it. What is more, they take members of the audience on their own moving and enlightening journey into self-knowledge.