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Touchpaper of youthful talent;Arts;Theatre

Raymond Ross reports on the Fire Works scheme, bringing theatre to - and from - a deprived estate in Edinburgh

There was more than one firework display at this year's Edinburgh Festival, thanks to a lottery-funded arts education initiative recently launched by Wester Hailes Arts for Leisure and Education - WHALE.

Only, this mini-festival of youth talent had nothing to do with Handel's whizzbang classic which packs out the city centre each year. The aptly-titled Fire Works was in fact a showcase designed to promote youth and community arts at the festival and marked the beginning of an ambitious three-year education programme. It will involve 2,000 young people, aged from eight to 25, from the Wester Hailes peripheral housing scheme on the western fringes of the city, an area classed as suffering from urban deprivation.

The three shows involved primary pupils in Waltzer's Matilda (about a magical funfair visiting a housing estate), secondary pupils in Multiple Division (about social exclusion in Edinburgh and beyond) and young adults in a localised and "earthy'' production of Steven Berkoff's highly acclaimed stage adaptation of Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis.

The first two were devised and written by young people working with theatre professionals but it is perhaps the second, Multiple Division, which provided the key to the philosophy behind the Fire Works initiative.

"The show aimed to identify divisions in society and how they affect young people's lives,'' says WHALE's publicity manager Jon Gray.

"It was heartfelt since all the cast come from Wester Hailes, an area of Edinburgh feared and excluded by the rest of the capital."

"Fire Works is about social inclusion,'' says the project manager, Sian Fiddimore. "Our aim over the next three years is to provide arts activities of a professional standard for young people in Wester Hailes, an area where 40 per cent of the population is under 25.

"We mean to provide access to quality teaching and training in the arts, using the arts as a tool for personal and social development. Through initiatives like job-shadowing and professionally-led workshops we hope to promote practical skills in the technical areas of theatre, in creative and report writing, in acting, devising and movement, in photography, the visual arts and tape-slide presentation.

"Implicit in all of this is the development of personal and social skills to do with confidence-building, group and self-evaluation and the enhancement of leadership skills. The basic ethos is to create a general feeling of inclusion, of young people belonging to something and somewhere. That is important and worthwhile.'' Fire Works will promote after-school activities this autumn and will place artists-in-residence in the five primary schools in the Wester Hailes area beginning at Westburn primary. Working with P6 and P7 pupils, a drama professional and a visual artist will collaborate to produce a piece which the pupils will perform for their peers from the other primaries in October.

After-school workshops this term, involving pupils from all the local schools, will culminate in a Christmas production where, says Fiddimore, "the young people will take control of the production with the professionals taking a back seat."

A huge city-centre summer event is planned for the year 2000. Provisionally entitled "The Big Bang'', the theory is to showcase all the work done in the three-year project. "Ideally, by the summer of 2000 we will have gone some way to providing realistic training and employment opportunities which will be recognised by colleges and accredited as such. We want to build a career path for young people,'' says Fiddimore.

The development of this strategy includes the establishment of a new arts centre in Wester Hailes, to be opened in July 1999. This will house workshop spaces, a recording studio, a darkroom, a creche, meeting and community rooms and a small performance space.

"We have to break down the idea that the arts are frivolous by showing how educational and instructive they are,'' says Fiddimore. "We also have to break down the idea that the festival and fringe are only for others, for tourists and visitors. It's important that during future festivals the young people are performing with Wester Hailes, that they feel and are seen to be part of an international festival.

"We are very much about challenging the negative image others have of young people from Wester Hailes. Hopefully, Fire Works will help promote real educational development for those taking part."

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