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Theatre at the growing stage

Seonag MacKinnon visits a summer school run by the newly formed Scottish Theatre and Music School

This doesn't happen to Sir Peter Hall and David Hare. Five minutes before the curtain rises on a summer school production staged by the fledgeling Scottish Theatre and Music School, one child asks to go to the loo. Most of the 59 other apprehensive children, ranging in age from three-and-a-half to 16, think this is a good idea. It is some 20 minutes before the all-singing all-dancing cast takes the stage.

Artistic director Derek Douglas, who used to run Jagged Edge Theatre Company, takes in his stride the domestic diversions involved in working with children. In fact the fast-growing school, launched in January and now working with 350 kids in six centres across central Scotland, is aiming to draw in even more children. Two new centres and a high profile patron are expected to be announced shortly.

Douglas feels STMS is playing a modest part in filling a void created by the cutbacks in arts and drama from the school curriculum. "It is short-term thinking. Youngsters are being robbed of an outlet for their creativity. The whole child is not being developed." He is investigating ways of incorporating the 5-14 guidelines into educational visits, and foresees the day when arts education cutbacks reach a point where schools are forced to buy in expertise from outside.

In December, STMS is staging Cinderella at the Pleasance Theatre, Edinburgh. It offers an advance visit from professional actors to schools attending the production.

STMS is reaching a relatively broad spectrum of children with its Easter and summer schools as well as terms of a weekly one-hour session at evenings or weekends, by keeping fees relatively low. One week at the summer school is Pounds 50 and the 10-week term fee is Pounds 30. Children with talent or commitment who are unable to pay may receive concessions. The fees are what they are, as courses seem to run at near capacity and overheads are low because STMS has no building of its own, operating instead in community halls.

Douglas anticipates a loss of about Pounds 8,000 from the four productions the school is staging in its first appearance at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe - The Wizard of Oz, Once a Catholic, Haggis, Neeps and Burns, Back 2 the 60s. But he is not seeking help from grants: "You might get a grant one year, but then find the rug pulled the following year. You don't know where you are. I'm not looking for handouts."

The financial foundations are the pupils, he feels. Many are sufficiently stimulated to come back for further courses. He also sees them as the world of theatre's future audiences as well as possible performers.

The approach is down to earth and disciplined. Children are taught to project their voices, but no cut-glass accents are to be heard. Precociousness is not encouraged. The message is that they are a team and individuals are only as good as the weakest. But there is less distance between teacher and child than would normally be seen in the classroom. A very young child can be seen resting on a tutor's hip or knee during breaks. The idea is that a structured but informal environment will make the children feel secure and relaxed enough to come out of themselves and perform.

In the arts workshop a girl's imagination has evidently been drawn out. She informs me that the costume she has designed on paper comes with a free watch - but it works only on Jupiter. An eight-year-old witch in a Rumpelstiltskin playlet stays in character while walking away from the centre at the end of the course. "Fair is foul and foul is fair," he says with feeling and enjoyment.

It is obviously rewarding when particularly shy and under-confident children begin to flourish. Douglas remembers warmly congratulating one such child after his major achievement of a first public performance. "I didn't do well, " said the boy. "Nobody ever tells me I did well."

For details of the Festival productions, tel: 0131 556 2661. To contact STMS, tel: 0131 669 2735

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