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The workshop's the thing

As the Royal Lyceum's season of Othello concludes, Brian Hayward highlights its wealth of educational support...

For a month every year, the schoolteacher is every theatre's best friend. Whenever theatre people sit down to plan their season, someone sooner or later is going to ask which classic the director has in mind.

More often than not, the playwright will be Shakespeare. Almost as much a fixture as pantomime, he will be there not because he is the world's greatest playwright and an actors' delight, but because he is an unfailing Pied Piper for school parties.

The Edinburgh Lyceum's admirable production of Othello is a case in point.

Winning plaudits from all sides, it is set to romp to its target audience of 10,500 when it finishes its run tomorrow night.

Over 3,000 seats will have been filled by 83 school parties, bussed in by teachers from as far afield as Orkney, Kilmarnock, and Yorkshire, with honourable mention for the Tiree school who see the production this evening, having come across on the overnight ferry. Back on the bus after the performance, they will drive back through the night to Oban to catch the morning boat. That, or they miss school on Monday.

This sort of audience is gold dust to a theatre, and the Lyceum does its best to cherish them. At the sharp end of the work is Alison Reeves, the theatre's education officer, who offered three kinds of supporting workshop to schools seeing the play.

In the first, she went to the schools on a pre-performance visit, preparing those who knew the text as well as those who didn't. The second, called "On the Day", she held in the theatre, with an hour on production elements like casting, directing and costume, followed by what is always a plum for the school party - a half hour with an actor.

Not all actors like talking about their roles while they are "in" them, rather as writers seldom discuss their work-in-progress, and some were busy with panto rehearsals, but the "leads" were happy to oblige. Clare Yuill, a sophisticated yet passionate Desdemona, rose from her death-bed, slipped on some clothes but kept her make-up to meet a school party, and the group from Kirkwall were more than pleased to recognise in the impressive Wil Johnson the star from TV's Waking the Dead and to hear how he met Robert De Niro.

The serious edge to this "star-gazing" is the awareness of the actor's contribution to a role, an aspect followed more closely in Reeves's third, post-performance workshop, where an actor helps the class explore how character is derived from text. If no actor is available, assistant director Jemima Levick can demonstrate the importance of interpretation by directing a scene in several different ways.

All season the Lyceum opens its stage doors to Highers drama students for backstage tours of playing productions, this month giving them the chance to see how Francis O'Connor's architecturally-led set adjusts for Venice and Cyprus, how Davy Cunningham makes moonlight on the Mediterranean, and how the stage manager runs the show and blows up a storm for the Turkish fleet.

The Royal Lyceum Youth Theatre members were not to be left out. Leader Colin Bradie took the play's themes of love, friendship and jealousy and devised a play for a group of young people on a Mediterranean island not a million miles from Ibiza complete with an Iago figure and the ill-effects of drinking. The Youth Theatre played it on the Othello set on a Monday night when the theatre is usually dark, in front of an audience of 400, with such success that it has earned a transfer to Dundee Rep.

Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, tel: 0131 248 4848

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