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Who's a big bully then?

Jigsaw, a theatre company of disabled actors, has launched a film dealing with bullying. Heather Neill reports

A girl in uniform trousers and shirt runs along a road, through a park, taking a familiar route to school. She is clearly very anxious. Not far behind her is a boy intent on making sure she feels threatened by him. Both wear white masks which indicate their state of mind: Helen's is small-mouthed, miserable, Tony's grinning in a rictus of nasty glee.

Helen and Tony are characters in Face2Face, a film made by Jigsaw, a theatre company all of whose members are disabled. The film, which deals explicitly with bullying, is based on a play that Jigsaw has already taken into secondary schools and Year 6 in primary schools. The real value of the piece, though, is that it showcases the abilities of the company members and raises more complicated questions about attitudes to disability.

Chief executive Gill Gerhardi is one of the founding members of Jigsaw. She herself attended a special school, where she fell in love with theatre, but did not take part in the annual pantomime because her speech was not deemed sufficiently clear. After gaining a university degree, marrying and having two children, she eventually got together with a group of enthusiasts to form Jigsaw. She says she is considered unemployable and many of the group are in the same position, although some have jobs or follow courses.

The name Jigsaw came about, Gill says, because "we realised every actor was going to be important regardless of the size of the part. We all fit together like a jigsaw". The company has about 12 members at a time with a waiting list and, when there is space, the next person is taken on, regardless of the level or type of his or her disability. The company runs workshops and courses with the help of disabled facilitators to continue to improve standards, and they seek advice from teachers when putting together materials from schools.

Every performance and showing of the film produces further feedback. The storyline of Face2Face is pretty straightforward. Tony comes from an unhappy home where he does not feel cherished and he takes his frustration out on Helen. He is making her life a misery by relentlessly isolating and teasing her. Others join in and eventually she tries to get some help from the headmaster, but cannot make herself heard. The ending is positive, with Tony and Helen tentatively getting together at the school dance. If the outcome is sunnier than is always the case in plays about bullying or, indeed, in real life, Gill Gerhardi says: "Well, we are a positive company; we all deal with lots of problems."

Face2Face is accompanied, as part of The Big Picture, by another film which introduces the company members who interview each other. It would be a good idea for anyone planning to use Face2Face in citizenship classes, or as part of an anti-bullying strategy, to show this as well. Helen Cookson, for instance, who plays Helen in the film, comes over as a lively, happy person, full of plans and ideas. She becomes a real young woman, not a stylised victim, something which is a side effect of the company's decision to use masks.

Masks have clearly been a great help to Jigsaw actors, freeing them from self-consciousness and placing greater emphasis on body language. Audiences unfamiliar with disability feel, according to the company's own notes, less discomfort when watching masked actors perform. But covering the face completely, especially in a rigid white mask, has disadvantages too, both for the actors who find them difficult to look out of and for the audience faced with only one expression for each character. Helen's more relaxed mood at the end of Face2Face, for instance, would in other circumstances be reflected in her expression. Would half masks, allowing the mouth to be seen, be worth experimenting with?

As things are, a judicious use of the accompanying material and perhaps showing the film in sections might be the best options for teachers. The emphasis is on the visual effect of scenes, using minimal dialogue, which underlines Helen's sadness and isolation. Jigsaw warns that its work often elicits an emotional response, so it would be well to be aware of raw feelings that might be touched. There is a rich source of triggers for discussion in both the films in the pack, while the accompanying teacher's pack has plenty of ideas for follow-up activities, including a description of peer mediation to deal with bullying problems in school.

l To obtain The Big Picture DVD (pound;20) or video (pound;15) pack, also available with subtitles, BSL signed or audio described, write to Jigsaw, Queens Park Arts Centre, Queens Park, Aylesbury, Bucks, HP21 7RT. A teacher's pack included.

Jigsaw is funded from various sources including Arts Council England

Tel: 01296 436363


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