Water music

24th September 2004 at 01:00
The tranquillity of the Lake District inspires pupils from former mining areas to new creative heights. Sarah French listens in

A boy and girl sit huddled in a corner. He occasionally reaches out a skinny arm, stretching a plastic cup towards imaginary passers-by. Then, around the desolate couple, their "friends and family" begin to sing. The lyrics and the melodic harmonies of the ballad Runaway make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end.

Discovering that the song was written by Rachael Buckmaster, 13, and 14-year-old Vicky Burnett, pupils at rival schools in County Durham, makes it all the more poignant. "We didn't know each other before - we just kind of found each other," says Vicky, who attends Blackfyne comprehensive in Consett.

"We wrote lots of rhymes and then chose a hookline," adds Rachael, who goes to nearby Moorside community college.

The song is the climax to a 20-minute musical about a girl who meets a Jewish boy through an internet chatroom. The cultural differences in their family backgrounds eventually force them to leave home.

A few rooms away, a second group of 15 students is making the final touches to a play about the conflict between Goths and Charvers, kids who think it's cool not to work hard. They, too, have used the chatroom setting to create a drama around the idea of being different.

It's a theme that runs throughout a weekend residential drama course being held at Cumbria Outdoors' Hawse End Centre, near Keswick, in the Lake District. The 30 children come from six schools in former mining communities in the North East, as well as Blackfyne and Moorside, Fyndoune community college, Deerness Valley comprehensive, Gilesgate comprehensive, and Stanley school of technology, all in County Durham, have selected pupils to attend.

The schools are all members of the leadership incentive grantcollaborative partnership which receives funding from Whitehall to set up projects for more able and talented pupils (MATs).

Previous projects have included residential maths courses for Years 8 and 11 children while a creative writing course and China-themed summer school for Year 7s are planned soon.

But the drama residential is the most ambitious yet, says Janet Byrne, MATs co-ordinator at Blackfyne. "We have set ourselves the challenge of creating from scratch two plays in 72 hours to the point where they can be performed twice in front of 500 parents, siblings and school friends."

Joining music teachers Janet Byrne and Paul Elliott from Stanley, and drama teacher Lois Pirie from Deerness Valley, is Andy Booth, director of Quondam Theatre Company, based in Penrith. He turns the children's ideas into scripts.

"We use their cultural reference points because they have to own the work," he says. "Some of their improvisation is extraordinary, it's electric."

Two weeks earlier, the children were asked to write short stories around the theme of being different with the best from a dramatic point of view chosen for the weekend. The chatroom idea was 12-year-old Stanley pupil Scott Mackinder's. "It's been a brilliant weekend," he says. "I've met lots of people."

They are sentiments echoed by Samantha Hall, 14, from Fyndoune, who, like Scott, wants to be an actor. "It's a great experience. It's good to work with such a variety of talented people in a relaxed environment."

And while the children clearly take a lot from being away from the classroom and the beautiful lakeside setting, which has provided a boat trip and woodland walks in the evenings, the teachers see benefits too. "I have learned things about the children I teach that I don't think I would have ever uncovered in the classroom," says Janet Byrne.

Hawse End is ideal for residential courses as children and teachers can stay the weekend, with Friday afternoon to Monday morning given to creating the plays.

"In school, teachers have the pressures of the curriculum, Sats, exams and other commitments," says Andy Booth. "Taking them out of school encourages creativity and allows the children to express themselves in an informal setting. And we are confident as a theatre company that we can produce something good at the end of it."

"It's astonishing what's been achieved and it's a lot more than academic achievement," says Janet Byrne. "We've raised confidence levels, broken down barriers and developed their theatrical and musical skills. It's been a wonderful, creative experience of working together."

And the following evening at the Lamplight Theatre in Stanley, as the last haunting harmonies of Runaway fade, there's not a dry eye in the house.

Quondam Theatre Company, PenrithTel: 01768 864513.Cumbria Outdoors, Hawse End Centre, Portinscale, Keswick. Tel: 01768 772816. Cumbria Outdoors, which is part of Cumbria County Council, uses outdoor and residential environments to deliver accessible development education.For more information, email cumbout@dial.pipex.com


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