Where angels dare to tread
For when my brother diesI shall cry tears of stone. Never will I have felt so alone. And my heart will try to be hard." The group of Year 10 drama students at Ercall Wood School in Telford, Shropshire are directed over and over again as they act out the lines, the tears of stone shedding in a graceful arc as their heads lean forward. Painstakingly they work through the poem, matching words to movement line by line, querying, experimenting, disagreeing with the director as any drama students would on any piece of text.
But for this director, the lines have more meaning than usual. "The whole idea," he explains to the group as he tries to get them to put more feeling into their choral recitation, "is that my brother's really gone." Andrew Peter, performance poet, author and storyteller, wrote the poem as his own brother, Mark, was in the long, agonising process of dying of Aids. Now, 18 months later, he uses this and other poems about the experience in schools as a springboard for drama, English and personal and social education work.
The poems and those of Mark, who was also a poet and an editor, are featured in May the Angels be with Us, a handsomely produced book that Shropshire County Council published following on from Andrew's work in schools with the poems. Subtitled "Poems of life, love, Aids and death," it is a powerful collection that delves into areas that are notoriously difficult to deal with in schools or anywhere else - things like grief, loss, illness and dying. Shropshire PSE advisers were so taken with the poems and workshops Andrew first took into schools six months after Mark's death that they put together a teachers pack for PSE, English or drama.
Andrew's two-week residency at Ercall Wood School, the second and final one working on the poems, has been an exercise in the school getting the most out of the experience. Once it was decided by tutors that the Year 10 group would be the best for him to work with, he was timetabled into PSE, English and drama. Andrew ran three PSE sessions with the focus on HIVAids, using the poems as a starting point.
Mark Walmsley, PSE co-ordinator, says "What has come across from the kids has been an immense respect for Andrew for bringing them his story." Straightforward information was delivered in an entertaining, personal way, such as Andrew juggling balls in the air while stating facts about transmission, mixed with humourous anecdotes about his brother Mark. Not exactly your standard health promotions unit spiel illustrated with flipcharts. In drama class, the work has been fully supported by and planned with head of drama Gary Hickey. "We had a lot of discussions beforehand. A residency like this requires an enormous amount of commitment from the kids and other teachers because the pupils have had to miss lessons and have had to put a lot of work into this. It's been very much a two-way deal. And it's the kind of work that doesn't allow you to avoid issues - it's in your face."
For the drama work, Andrew divided the class into two groups, one working on his poems, the other working on Mark's. The work is very text-based, looking closely at language as well as doing voice work, singing and movement. The students have found working on this material with Andrew surprisingly refreshing. "This isn't something we'd ordinarily do, performance poetry, " said one girl. It's been great, because we've had lots of opinions and he doesn't say 'do this' and 'do that'." Another put it this way: "The poems are very emotional and at the beginning I thought it would be heavy working on them. I didn't expect it to be so much fun."
Part of the success must lie with Andrew Peter's charisma and youthful energy, both helping to defuse the intensity of the subject without obliterating it. "I'm always trying to get a balance between the fun stuff and the powerful emotions. That way, it's easier to get them writing their own personal accounts about what's going on with them emotionally, helping them to find a language to express their feelings. Through this work I'm telling them they can make something constructive out of their bad or negative feelings."
While the drama groups are getting a tremendous amount of experience and insight into the form and content of the poems from the sessions with Peters, they have been working towards a specific end as well: a performance of 18 of the poems, with musical interludes (Peters on didgeridoo) to be performed in front of pupils and parents at the end of the two week residency. As far as headteacher Peter Rubery is concerned, "it was a matter of either stimulating the children's interest and allowing them to be moved through personal experience or being spoken to by their class teacher. I've felt that having Andrew in the school has definitely been worth the financial commitment. "
o May The Angels Be With Us is available from Shropshire Education Publications, The Shirehall, Abbey Foregate, Shrewsbury SY2 6ND. Tel: 0743 254321.