Wobbly stage and failing props - and that's not the theatre;Commentary;FE Focus;Opinion

3rd April 1998 at 01:00
First night of The Wizard of Oz and Aberdeen Youth Theatre's snowman routine was going down a treat. As the curtain swept across the stage one poor snowperson was trapped outside and made the lonely discovery that, swathed in a fluffy white costume without arms, it was impossible to find the opening in the curtain. All he could do was make a dignified, if forlorn, exit stage left.

During a week of theatre going where productions both amateur and professional offered an unusually high proportion of wobbly walls, detachable door handles and peeling moustaches, what struck me most was the similarity between a first-night production and the first week of a new teaching block. New classes, new units, new timetable and suddenly you seem to be acting in a production where you're being fed the wrong cues and all the props take on a sinister life of their own. You discover what it's like to soldier on when the walls are wobbling and your (metaphorical) moustache is hanging on by a whisker.

Sure, you've known for years that if the video playback doesn't work it's because the current is switched off at the trunking but hey, anyone can forget sometime in their lives and as you dither, an astute student acts as bored prompter. You resist yelling back, "I knew that!" and respond graciously. It's a bad start and things get worse. With one lift out of action, students are reluctant to climb nine flights, and arrive in ones and twos very late indeed, but you welcome them and recap enthusiastically.

Just as you begin to gain control of your audience the fire alarm sounds. After a nice breath of fresh air at ground level you're all set to start over. You discover they've already seen the video you've planned to show and reschedule quickly. Tea break comes next. You wait a very long time for them to ascend to the ninth floor again for the second half. This, you eventually have to concede, resembles closely the second act of Waiting for Godot; the same as the first act only a bit worse.

It's not always the props that let you down. Sometimes you just ham it up too much. In my second year group, Dave is not renowned for his motivation. His mates were trying to encourage him to commit himself to a unit they all knew was going to be particularly challenging for him. They were doing a good job without my help.

Dave did his best to deflect attention away from himself. "Why should anyone bother if I give up - it doesn't affect them." I came in at this point to give the class support. "I think it will. If you give up because you can't be bothered, it'll affect the morale of everyone else in the class." Everyone-else-in-the-class's eyes were fixed on Dave now. "Get off my case," he spluttered. "It's not a war, we're not going over the top!" Yet it is, Dave. And we are. And believe me, this unit is a tough one.

Getting the feel of new classes, gauging how best to motivate them, or to build their confidence, is hard work. Win a class over the first meeting and you've got them in the palm of your hand for the rest of the block. It can help when someone puts in a word for you. Stephen, a former student, came to a first meeting to deliver a message. As he left, with perfect dramatic timing and no small amount of daring, he turned to the class and said "She's a great teacher." Pity that his authority and credibility was then called severely into question when he exited into the cupboard. Don't call us, Stephen, we'll call you.

If the first week of a new block often seems like a bad first night, you're often not too clear whether the play's farce or tragedy. Mostly it's something in between and you develop an enigmatic look of calm enquiry amidst seeming madness. This comes in handy when Helen gazes out the window during proof reading and editing and asks: "Do you think someone would let me out on that ledge?" Yes we are still nine floors up at this point and though it's not the most engaging unit I didn't think it was that bad. It turns out, though, that it's a perfect shot for her photography unit. I suggest she ask the caretaking staff about that one and wonder if they have disclaimer forms for such occasions.

The first-week-of-the-block production is not a one-hander. There are other characters quietly going crazy around me. My colleague phones up student records to ask imperiously why her registers are printed in red when they should be in blue. She is treated kindly by student record staff and we sit her down and ply her with coffee. It is around seven years since registers were printed in blue but anyone can make a mistake. Nevertheless she expresses some concern for her mental well-being.

You sip your coffee and dream for a moment about the promises made to further education and the way it could be. A state of the art, Technicolor production: DOROTHY (in wonderment) I guess we're not in Kansas any more. Only you are, Dorothy. You and your little dog, too. So you rinse your cup and try with great aplomb to find that opening in the curtain.

Dr Carol Gow is a lecturer in mediacommunication at Dundee College.

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