The year has got off to a dramatic start with two theatre in education groups touring very different productions. Brian Hayward reports
Smash Hit. By Baldy Bane Theatre Company. Touring until March 2.
Draw a line from children's theatre to theatre in education and somewhere about the mid-point is "educational theatre", the drama of information and opinions, where the pill of fact is softened and flavoured with a coating of human interest. A good example of the genre is being played out by the Glasgow-based Baldy Bane company this month, as it tours secondary schools with Smash Hit, a cautionary tale about driving under the influence of drugs.
The tour is a pilot study, both for the theatre group and for the Scottish Road Safety Campaign, which is funding the venture. Baldy Bane's director, David Goodall, watches every audience, gauging the interest and reaction, while much the same exercise is being carried out by the road safety experts.
Their involvement began with their overviewing Garry Stewart's text before it went to the actors, and continues throughout the pilot. When Baldy Bane played in Lenzie Academy, East Dunbartonshire road safety officer Jeannette McCallum was there with an armful of questionnaires for the students.
The findings will be quantified later, but a quick leaf-through as they were handed in showed a positive reaction. This was reward for the cast, for the fifth-year audience had groaned when it heard what the message of the entertainment was to be. But education theatre can take a trick. The community police officers who watched the performance in an Ayrshire school promptly commissioned the company to create a performance about crime, knowing full well that when they stand up to talk to schools, they, too, are met with groans.
What turns the tide for Baldy Bane is the sheer energy of the four players, as they switch masks and hats to play toddlers, teenagers, parents and grannies in a score of vignettes of contemporary life. In every one, some kind of drug features. The mother wants a prescription for her sick wean; gran talks up her symptoms to get more sleeping pills; another wants valium for her panic attacks.
When the focus moves to the school-age characters, "recreational" drugs become the currency of status and individuality, first at parties and then in night clubs, and the story lines coalesce in the demise of the young man getting a car and driving licence for his 17th birthday. There is no suggestion of a surprise ending, and the cast does well to sustain the drama of car crash and funeral with so few "theatrical" trappings.
When the acting is over, the four actors and director each chair a discussion group, ranging rapidly through the whole range of drugs available in this country, detailing their upsides and downsides, and the scale of fines and prison sentences applicable. I learned at least as much as the students, who either didn't know or weren't saying.
The young Baldy Bane cast reeks of street cred, and all round the room the groups were involved and attentive.
Head On. Boilerhouse Theatre Company. Touring Edinburgh, Lothian and Aberdeen.
Actresses used to warm up with calisthenics and chants of "mee, maa, moo". Nowadays they have a game of football, or maybe that's only the Boilerhouse Theatre Company.
Boilerhouse has a talent for being different, not least because it's the only Scottish theatre in education group to devote itself to one model of TIE - "forum theatre" and its philosophy permeates the present tour of Head On.
The readable booklet that Boilerhouse gives to participating schools has some detailed schemes for follow-up work, and also a rough guide to forum theatre, explaining how drama activist Augusto Boal developed the model as a riposte to governments that stifled debate.
Forum theatre's principle is that the spectator can become a spectACTOR, able to change the on-stage action, and it is this participatory element that makes it so suitable for TIE. Boilerhouse plays and replays scenes in which young people make difficult and possibly incorrect choices. The pupils can intercept at any moment, go up on stage, take over the protagonist role, and improvise different responses within the context of the problem.
The "context" is crucially important - the children have to be able to identify readily with the reality of the situation - and Boilerhouse leaves nothing to chance. It kept on board its "planning team" of secondary school students from the previous project, and asked them to research the concerns of young lives.
Moving away from the "single-issue" project (typically on drugs, alcohol or bullying), though staying with personal and social education, Boilerhouse looked for the universal yetintimate sources of personal anxiety, and then fed the results to its "resident" writer, Welshman Nick Davies, an Edinburgh postman and a playwright. The young planning team was then allowed to monitor his text, and sit in on rehearsals, suggesting points at which the scenes would most likely be interrupted.
Team-playing is very much a Boilerhouse characteristic. At "forum" time at Theatre Workshop in Edinburgh, education co-ordinator Yonnie Fraser led the activity by accepting the interventions from the audience, rejecting "unreal" solutions, starting and stopping their variations, and evaluating their contributions. But stage manager Jools Walls held the script, while the actors skilfully accompanied the students in whatever direction the dialogue was taken. Everyone helped in keeping the spectators quiet and attentive; out of 50 students, only one can be the spectACTOR at any one time.
It can be a long day, for everybody. Boilerhouse demands a day's commitment from its participants. Typically, a day starts at 9.45am, with whole-group and small-group physical and mental orientation. Then follows the hour-long play, performed by the cast of four in front of an ingenious and well-fashioned set. After lunch, some warm-up drama, involving the actors and volunteer students, precedes the forum session, which ends at 3.30pm.
Head On seems to work, the teachers are enthusiastic at the results, and the boys queue up to intervene in Danny's problem with his mother and girl friend, possibly because it means holding hands with the glamorous Louise.
After its four weeks in Edinburgh, Lothian and Aberdeen, Boilerhouse will evaluate the project, and repeat it in a year's time for interested schools and local authorities.
Baldy Bane, tel: 0141 632 0193Boilerhouse Theatre Company, tel: 0131 221 1677