UK first earns a round of applause

13th November 2009 at 00:00
Theatre is about a lot more than just acting, as Dundee Rep proves on its Enterprise Day

You've got five seconds to create the shape of a toothbrush. There are three of you. No props. Go. What do you do?

Two of you lie stretched on the floor, head to toe, the third leans over the end, arms extended to form the bristles.

"That's good," says the workshop leader. "Now, this is a cheeky one. Five seconds. Give me an iPod!"

Two stand face to face, between them is squeezed the third, facing out. "I'm going to press the button now. I want a tune."

A shoulder is pressed and from out the "iPod" come the strains of "Twinkle, twinkle, little star . ".

Dundee Rep's education officer, Gemma Nicol, is putting these senior pupils through their paces, exploring ideas of image and identity. But this isn't simply for their benefit. In a few hours, the pupils will be leading a similar drama workshop for 20 S3s at the city's Morgan Academy.

A daunting prospect? "No. It's so much fun and you have to move things so quickly there's no time to be embarrassed, even though you might look a bit weird," says Nicole Knight, from Craigie High.

"This bit's about holding the image in front of other people. It's almost performing and that should be a good way of bringing some of the pupils out a bit in our workshop this afternoon," says Robyn Clenaghan, from Braeview Academy.

"Morgan Academy's my school, so I'm dead cool about that. It'll be about us communicating and getting them to problem solve," says Jacqueline Heenan.

The girls are among 32 senior pupils, drawn from seven Dundee secondary schools, who are taking part in Dundee Rep's Enterprise Day - a day dedicated to introducing pupils to every aspect of running a theatre company.

While they are working with the theatre's creative learning (education outreach) team, the other pupils are working as actors, directors, stage managers, scenic designers, lighting and sound designers and operators, wardrobecostume designers and marketing and press officers. And while the three girls learn what is involved in facilitating workshops for schools and community groups, the others are working towards producing, performing and publicising a scene from The Elephant Man (the company's current show), which they are going to stage before an invited audience in the early evening.

"In a first read-through it's important to get a flow, to give it energy and to make it sound as natural as possible," actress Emily Winter tells the assembled pupil actors and directors who are about to embark on a physical and vocal warm-up which is, quite literally, going to take their breath away.

And while they are in the process of "actioning" the text, exploring different ideas, emotions and movements, the Rep's scenic artist and assistant designer Leila Kalbassi is talking about vision. "You can create any set you want if you have a reason for it and the director's on board. Go for the `wow factor'. It's about your imagination," she says.

Ideas tumble out: from using a giant portrait of the "elephant man" to trees and lamp-posts and a circus-tent chopped in half and joined with a semi-circular, metal grated fence through which the audience will look.

In a darkened room, three pupils are shining small torches on a scaled model, trying angles and colours for atmosphere and effect in preparation for lighting the show. From dressing room to dressing room, wardrobe and costume go. They're discussing subtleties of look and efficiency of design, especially the demands of quick costume changes back stage.

In press and marketing, websites and videos are the order of the day. A question-and-answer session with the director or actors is an obvious enough proposal. But what about posting costume designs on-line? Or a short video showing the set being constructed?

"Dundee Rep is a theatre for everyone and the idea of the Enterprise Day - the first of its kind in the UK - is to show that everyone can get involved in theatre and that theatre is about a lot more than just acting," says associate director Sarah Brigham.

"It's about us embracing our role in the industry to help bring on a new generation of theatre makers."

For Gemma Nicol, the Enterprise Day is "a fantastic opportunity for us to open our doors to young people from across Dundee and give them an insight into what life is like in a working theatre and the jobs which are potentially available to them.

"Quite often, people assume that working in a theatre means being an actor, but this project, which we are hoping to offer every year, aims to dispel that myth by introducing young people to everything from front of house to back stage."

From the beginning of the day there is a buzz about the building. The energy is palpable. But so is the focus, the concentration. Each pupil had to apply for their "post" in advance and each was interviewed. Some came to be actors but found that what really attracted them was directing ("We're control freaks!" the budding directors tell me).

The staff, too, are energised by the experience. "It's been fascinating for all of us," says Emily, who has spent the day leading the young actors through their character exploration. "To take them through the process in a single day was a daunting prospect, but their commitment was brilliant and, for me, intensely rewarding."

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