Young dramatists at the frontiers

13th July 2007 at 01:00
A Polish probationer and three pupils with emotional and behavioural difficulties share a journey of self-discovery

TWO HOURS before Craig, Paul and John were to perform their play The Asteroid, they were sitting in the assembly hall talking about their experiences.

They all had different reasons for doing it. For Craig, it was "a change from English", for John it was "a great opportunity to practise acting", while Paul wanted his parents to see him act. But they all felt the same: nervous, excited and proud. Sitting with them, I reflected on my theatrical journey at the school.

Being Polish in Glasgow is not a novelty. There are many Poles strolling down Buchanan Street and thousands more across Scotland. The field of education is no exception: there are many Polish teachers working here and I am one of them.

Having been a bilingual teacher last year, I decided to take a different route as an English teacher this year. My first placement was at a school for children with moderate learning difficulties. The other was at Cartvale School for pupils with emotional and behavioural problems. When I went to the school for the first time, it was not what I had envisaged, but one of my biggest teaching successes was to be achieved here.

With 10 years' teaching experience in Poland and hardly any in Scotland, I felt lost. Together with a colleague who was a personal and social education teacher, I pondered which paths I would take with each class. I introduced a praise system, which was a success but demanded a more systematic approach to teaching. As the days went by, it became clear that my pupils needed something straightforward and grounded.

I devised a plan. To encourage creative writing with one class, I agreed to help pupils write their own plays. The feedback varied, but Craig Smith and Paul Bryce, two boys from class D, expressed an interest in drama. I had trained in acting and performed at the Edinburgh Fringe, so I thought it would be a great idea to brainstorm their ideas and stimulate their creativity. One concern I had was whether they would take it seriously, but their enthusiasm kept me going.

The boys seemed agile and willing to face up to the challenge. Most of the writing was done in class and then acted out.

We progressed every day and I just hoped the show would go on. Killer Bees was the first title for the play, and they made the poster, but then it was changed to The Asteroid, and the killer bees became Japanese hornets.

Even before the script was ready, the pupils wanted to rehearse it on the main stage in the assembly hall. It was meant to be a descriptive play, with a narrator reading most of the dialogue. But with only half a script, a problem emerged. We needed one more actor who would play One-Minute-Man, a robot.

I thought of John, a pupil from another class. I wasn't sure if the boys would accept him. But the audition went well and, after just one rehearsal, John was on board. I sighed with relief as the casting was fixed. Writing the rest of the play was a piece of cake.

The final version was ready two weeks before the premiere. It tells the story of two friends, Allan and Jack, who get hit by an asteroid and go through a transformation. It is a classic good versus evil story: Allan versus Jack. It is also full of choreographed fighting scenes. To enhance the effect, I used music from film soundtracks such as Gladiator, Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Sitting with the boys before the premiere, I realised how valuable theatre projects are for pupils with behavioural and emotional problems. By collaborating, I got to know them better and was able to talk them through it when a crisis hit. It was not always easy, but day by day they were more open and focused, telling everyone about the play.

Recalling my college years and my dissertation on drama in the classroom, I recollected how much pleasure it gave pupils. At Cartvale, I became fully aware of that.

Drama allows pupils to come up with creative stories and share them with the rest of the world. It is the fantasy world where they can become whoever they want: a robber, a villain, a monster. Playing a bad guy is their dream, and they can set their stories in the future, the past or somewhere exotic.

Plays can have healing powers as well. They ask questions and look for answers. Such projects are specially useful in special needs schools, where children can be victims of domestic violence and more susceptible to physical, drug and alcohol abuse. Anti-bullying or drug-related plays are a great remedy, full of educational and existential values. They can even act as problem-solving devices and help pupils break the deadlock.

The show began at 1.30pm. My heart was thumping, but quickly calmed down as I watched them spread their wings. By the end, I saw how happy they were and was proud of them. The audience was not big, but they gave a huge round of applause and the headteacher congratulated everyone on their performance. I was not surprised when Craig, sitting next to the proud Paul, admitted: "It was the best thing I have ever done."

The Cartvale pupils saw that drama and learning can be fun and they can learn a lot by doing similar projects. They can overcome fears, become team players, better learners, effective contributors and confident individuals.

When I think of my first day at Cartvale, and how lost I felt, I still get goose bumps. Although I have just finished my probation, I feel I have found the light. I think I know what the future holds for Craig, Paul, John, and The Asteroid too. When I ask them about it, Craig says, "Have you seen Pirates of the Caribbean?" When I answer "Yes", I hear: "If there is a sequel to that, why can't there be a sequel to this?" John already has a title for it: The Return of One-Minute-Man.

They are high flyers, so I would not be surprised if they had an idea for Part 3. I just keep reminding myself that we have achieved so much and have nothing to lose.

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