Year of Culture has taken drama - from the battlefield to schools

Jean McLeish

Millions have been spent on arts centres and museums in the Highlands but will 2007 leave a lasting legacy for pupils? Jean McLeish reports on some key projects and asks heads what they think.

It was dark and cold when Rosie and Alice rose early to get the bus to the newly-opened Eden Court Theatre in Inverness.

The Ullapool High pupils were up before dawn to make sure they were in time for their mask-making workshop - a four-week course to boost their portfolio for art school.

This morning, the 17-year-olds are putting the finishing touches to their gold and silver pierrot masks. They are part of a small group which includes an artist who studied at art school 50 years ago and two Polish workers.

"This is the first time I have been down since it opened. I think it's lovely, it's really good," says Rosie McGregor, a sixth-year pupil from Ullapool. But not everyone agrees: some think it's too dark or ugly and others think they should have more to show for a price tag of pound;20 million plus.

But those enjoying the facilities this morning are having a great time. Some have been to a variety of taster workshops launched to celebrate the opening of one of the largest multi-arts centres in Scotland, a landmark project of the Highland Year of Culture 2007 which is now coming to an end.

"We've been to film making, film editing, theatre lighting and sound, and we also went to a horror make-up session," says Chris Finlay, 20, who thinks pound;3 for this morning's two-hour session is a good deal.

And there's value for money in the range of trailblazer classes on offer, including flamenco dancing, a cappella singing, comedy acting, stage fighting and yoga for toddlers.

There's a buzz around the place, with people busy rehearsing for upcoming productions - it's a creative hub and a pleasant venue for socialising.

The Eden Court Theatre was first built on the site in 1976, but it had to be closed in 2005 for health and safety reasons. Now, after a two-year redevelopment, the original 850-seat theatre has been refurbished; plus there's a new 270-seater theatre, a bar and restaurant facilities, two cinemas, two studios for workshop and rehearsal space, a dressing room block and the wonderfully restored Bishop's Palace.

With its slate floor and a striking pink central pillar, the new theatre foyer is spacious and contemporary-looking, and a glass frontage offers views of the River Ness.

Sixty small portraits by Russian-born local artist Eugenie Vronskay look down on the theatregoers. The subjects are people who have worked here - actors and musicians and even the electrician who worked on the building.

Eden Court's arts education manager, Judith Aitken, heads up a 15-strong team. This includes the Out of Eden drama workers who are based throughout the Highlands working in schools and communities. They are funded by Highland Council. The rest of the arts education team is based at Eden Court and they work across the arts with all ages.

Only one school in Highland - Culloden Academy - has its own drama department, so the 10 Out of Eden drama workers have to meet the needs of all the other 28 secondaries.

Sonia Rose, former arts liaison officer who was seconded to Eden Court by Highland Council in 1990, laid the foundations for today's drama outreach team.

Now retired, she says one reason drama became a Cinderella subject in schools was lack of money. "Historically, I suspect it's something to do with the fact that there were small local authorities and there was a strong presence of the church. The Free Church seemed to regard drama as perhaps a frill and not an academic subject."

For the past five years, Highland students from across the region have travelled to Inverness on Saturdays to study Higher drama and dance. Two years ago, Intermediate 2 drama was also launched at Eden Court.

Ms Aitken says: "They come from as far away as Thurso, Lochaber and Ullapool. Some come the night before, if they live far away, and stay in the youth hostel. Every school in Highland can say they offer dance and drama."

Out of Eden drama workers in places like Thurso and Skye also work with schools and communities on local productions. And for the Highland Year of Culture, the arts education team assembled Big Head, a touring project which gave over 230 performances in 116 schools.

A new member of staff has now been appointed to work in schools where pupils have additional needs. This is a welcome boost to enthusiastic performers at places such as nearby Drummond School.

This month, a digital media artist is joining the arts education team.

"That will be a lot of film education. Kids just love film. It is the very big thing now," says Ms Aitken. She is delighted with the new amenities: "It's fantastic because we have space now. Before, we were working in corridors and at 6 o'clock the workshop would finish because the show was coming in."

Another eagerly-awaited project for Highland 2007 is the new multi-million pound Culloden Visitor Centre. This includes a new exhibition and film of the battle; an education suite with facilities for school groups and a three-strong team to run the living history programme, tours and events.

When the first schools visit the exhibition at the beginning of this year, the centre will launch a competition to find children whose ancestors took part in the battle, with the winners taking part in the opening celebrations in April.

Some families will have had two relatives fighting on opposing sides - and the centre is particularly keen to hear from them. Information about how to enter will be announced soon.

Further landmark projects include the Highland Archive Network, Inverness Museum and Art Gallery and the Highland Folk Museum, as well as redevelopments such as Nairn Community Centre and Thurso Town Hall.

Highland 2007 ends on January 12 with a torchlight procession and fireworks spectacular on Kessock Bridge. And then there will be just about enough time to dry-clean your kilt in time for the next party - Homecoming 2009, another year-long cultural celebration to welcome home Scots from across the globe.

The legacy of Highland 2007

When all the excitement has blown over, will there be any lasting effect for schools throughout the region?

That's the big question, says Duncan Ferguson, the headteacher of Plockton High. "I would love to see the legacy being drama brought into Highland schools, because the teaching of it is so patchy right across Scotland."

As the year of culture draws to a close, he has called for drama teachers to be introduced into schools in the Highlands.

Culloden Academy is the only school where drama is taught in-house, meaning 20 pupils throughout Highland have to travel to Inverness on Saturdays to study Higher drama at Eden Court.

"One of the weaknesses of Scottish education at the moment is that we don't have enough drama teaching," says Mr Ferguson. "Art is strong and music is strong. I think, drama and storytelling have an equal place with these other arts forms."

Plockton pupils marked the approaching end of Highland 2007 with a highly successful St Andrew's Day ceilidh and Mr Ferguson believes the year has helped the school to promote Gaelic language and culture in particular. "We are looking to keep going with that. We are going to have even more events for both our learners and our fluent speakers because the year has made us think about it more."

But heads of schools throughout Highland are, he says, concerned about the legacy of the past year. "The year's been a big blitz, but we are really very concerned about continuation, although we are hopeful. Clearly the funding will not be around in the way it was this year."

Jim Johnston, headteacher at Farr High in Caithness, shares these concerns. Among a host of events in Highland 2007, his pupils battled through last January's gales to attend the Inverness Street Party, which they loved, they took part in a show to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the start of the Clearances and they are now growing their own potatoes, following the planting to plate project to promote crofting.

He says some 2007 events, like a survival weekend pupils attended, are unlikely to be repeated because of the cost: "It might have created the desire to do things but unless continuing funding comes up, it's difficult."

Arthur Cormack, the director of the Feis music movement, says a number of local Feisean were involved in teaching youngsters traditional music, song and drama as part of the Highland Promise programme in schools. The annual Blas Festival has also been given significant support over the past two years by Highland 2007.

He says the Eden Court Theatre redevelopment and the new Culloden Visitor Centre will provide lasting and visible legacies. "At the moment it's hard to know what these might be, whether some of the programmes might continue beyond 2007.

"I know there's the Year of Homecoming in 2009 and a wish to keep some of the things going, so that there is a bit of continuity between 2007 and 2009."

Fiona Hampton, the director of Highland 2007, says: "We think it's been a huge success. We are going to get the formal evaluation of the project from the University of Glasgow in JuneJuly and hopefully their findings will confirm that. But anecdotally, the feedback we've had is incredibly positive."

She says the Highland Promise programme has been designed to give pupils access to cultural opportunities they might not otherwise have had, with pound;20,000 allocated to each community school group to fund its chosen activities.

"So there have been 28 bespoke cultural plans developed for each of the 28 community school groups and they have been working their way through that.

"We have heard some of the projects in the schools have been really great and we hope that young people have benefited.

"That will be part of the formal evaluation Glasgow University will be doing for us. And we are already learning lessons from the uptake, which I hope we can use in the development of any further cultural policy decisions which relate to young pupils in the schools."

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Jean McLeish

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