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Theatre can be child's play

Students join the NTS cast for a classroom cupboard classic, Brian Hayward reports

The National Theatre of Scotland has come up with what looks like a winning formula for its schools and community work, to judge by its production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible.

It is always good for the box office to tour a modern classic found in many a classroom cupboard, but the NTS trumps that by casting it with a spine of nine professional actors and then inviting local schoolchildren and amateurs to take the supporting roles.

Then, with the costs cut and the tickets sold, the NTS can afford a level of local theatre education that must make the Scottish Community Drama Association envious and any part-time actor or schoolteacher rhapsodic.

Former headteacher Liz Mitchell, for example, who played Mrs Putnam in the special Glasgow rehearsal group, told of the huge amount she had learned, and "the thrill of working alongside people who had been with the Royal National Theatre and RSC".

TAG Theatre Company, last seen in residence at Dalbeattie Academy, is in charge of the production, and Guy Hollands rehearsed the professionals and their supporting amateurs in the Citizens Theatre, TAG's new Glasgow home.

Five parallel casts were also rehearsed for the performances at Livingston, Cumbernauld, Findhorn, the Byre in St Andrews and the Irvine Magnum.

Assistant director Gordon Barr kept all five companies in step with Glasgow with the help of video recordings.

Because of the demanding rehearsal schedule, inevitably the 16 community players (self-selected) were mainly third-age people, often time-served in amateur drama, and young drama students, but importantly at every theatre at least six of the roles went to schoolchildren. The big question for the theatre-goer, of course, was would this professionalamateur mix work?

To judge from the tour launch at the Howden Park Centre in Livingston, it works well enough. The four pupils from Bathgate Academy and the two from St Margaret's, alongside the other local players, were word-perfect, disciplined and faultlessly supported a production that held the audience from start to finish.

The TAG team gave them every support. Moley Campbell's stage design evoked the poverty with a shallow wooden stage backed by skeletal timber and wheat straw. Paul Sorley heightened the action with gently melodramatic ground and back lighting, and Guy Hollands' taut and persuasive direction helped blur most of the difference in performance skills between the NTS cadre and their community support.

There was a perceptible change of gear when the full-timers were given their head. Ian Hanmore, aloof in his absolutism, is always cool and deliberate as the hanging judge, Samantha Young is a sexy and malevolent Abigail Williams, and Miller's final scene, of the Proctors' leave-taking before their execution, is movingly handled by Owen Gorman and Lorna McDevitt.

For the educationist, the production is, however, only the cream on the cake. As part of the process, NTS Learn and TAG have put education teams into the five areas since November to work with more than 500 people in school and community groups. Fourteen schools, from Findhorn to Irvine, were offered a team of five artists (drama, music, dance, digital and visual art) to work with a class for 20 weeks.

"Most of the schools embraced the idea," said Emily Ballard, TAG's creative learning director. "What surprised us was that, where we expected the third-year classes, it was more the Higher English and drama teachers who wanted the work.

At St Margaret's in Livingston, for example, the third year could benefit from the whole arts team, while the Higher drama group kept closer to their examination needs. At Ross High in Tranent, the team worked quite differently with the Higher English class, though elsewhere we discovered that visual artists could make a significant contribution to literature and drama work."

Despite this success, NTS Learn teams don't want to be seen as auxiliary teachers. The emphasis is on the creativity of learning. Their mantra is:

"you can't be creative without learning and you can't learn without being creative". To emphasise this, every theatre plans to display the artwork that derives from the collaboration.

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