Thanks for the memories

Dundee's once-famous ice-rink is the subject of a new youth theatre project. Brian Hayward reports on how local people helped create the play.

A "freezy bite" is what ice-skaters in 1947 Dundee always ate after doing their stuff at the ice-rink. That's maybe not a great discovery for a city like Dundee, but it is one of the curious items of social bric-`a-brac taken out and dusted down by the Youth Theatre as it works on an important "reminiscence theatre" project.

The Youth Theatre is taking as its focus the Dundee ice-rink 50 years ago when it was the disco raveleisure centre and alco-pop for young people (later known as "teenagers") of the city. Helping it with its enquiries are three ex-skaters, two of whom actually got the dream jobs of working at the rink when they left school.

These three will figure in the final theatre version of the project, their remembered selves played by 14-year-old Youth Theatre actors. There will be lights, there will be music and - wait for it - there will be roller-blade choreography, with the help of Stephen Prickett, the animateur of the Scottish Dance Theatre.

What makes the ice-rink such a brilliant choice for this reminiscence theatre work is that at least one of the objectives of this kind of community drama, bonding society by bridging the generations, is here considerably helped by a common interest. The lost ice-rink, once so precious to the young and unwed, is now back on the Dundee agenda. The local Youth Forum asked for a new one, and this is now at an early planning stage.

Another objective is skilling the Youth Theatre members. The 15 interested writers in the group had first to learn the "reminiscence" techniques, and for this they have had guidance from Ollie Animashawun, an experienced community theatre worker from London's Royal Court, fresh from a two-year "verbatim theatre" project with six London youth theatres.

Ollie, as he is known, gave the writers' group a week's intensive course in questioning and listening techniques. He preaches "active listening" as a skill for life. "You have to listen with your eyes as well as your ears," he insists. "Body language speaks louder than words."

He was delighted with the results. "They did really well - two really good sessions, hanging on every word," he says. And the Youth Theatre people were pleased with their findings. Getting your skates on, it seems, was where it was at. Even if you couldn't skate, you strolled round the town with a pair of skates over your shoulder. It was apparently good for "pulling".

Maybe that is why someone somewhere in Dundee still has a pair hanging on the wall at home. Fashion (or was it coyness?) for the girls decreed that beginners wore trousers, but the skilful showed off in skirts. Accessories included gravy browning smeared over the legs for stockings, the seam drawn by a friend with a steady hand and a black crayon.

Ollie's week ended with two whole-day sessions on the Saturday and Sunday, one day to review and distill the material, and another to present it as work-in-progress to the rest of the Youth Theatre group. So ended a contribution that was part of a burgeoning collaboration between Dundee Rep and the Royal Court.

It began last year when the Royal Court targeted Scotland in its Young Writers project. Of the 20 Dundee Youth Theatre members who joined in, eight actually submitted scripts. Although none made it to the finals, the Royal Court workers went back to London, as Ollie puts it, "singing the praises of the Dundee scene".

A couple of phone calls, and the two theatres began a worker-exchange scheme in which Anna Newell, the Dundee freelance music worker, went to London, and Ollie came to Dundee. The exchange has worked so well that the two theatres are considering extending the partnership.

Ingenious as it is, the youth theatre reminiscence project is only one strand of a three-part community theatre venture that clearly demonstrates Dundee's pre-eminence in this kind of work. Their secret, if it is one, is that the Rep has no poor relations - the main house theatre programme, the community work and the dance company are all equal partners.

So, come the climactic community event at the end of March, the Youth Theatre, all 50 of them, will be in there alongside two other reminscence projects: Anna Newell is working on a choral history of working women in Dundee; and, to complete the trio, Justine Themen, the community drama worker at the heart of these projects, is working with youngsters from ethnic minorities doing reminiscence work with first-generation incomers.

In two valuable projects, Dundee's young people are positively responding to the older generation's "will you still need me, will you still feed me, now I'm 64?". It's just that they're feeding them questions instead of freezy bites.

* Dundee Rep, tel:01382 227684

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