School's out, drama's in

Pupils in Birmingham schools have been drawn into a drama by playwright Edward Bond. W Stephen Gilbert sees them in action
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The Theatre in Education movement, a pivotal force in community arts throughout the Sixties and Seventies, is at a low ebb. Fewer than a dozen troupes survive and those that do scratch a living on the scrapings of candle-end economies in both the performing arts and education budgets.

Big Brum is one such Theatre in Education (TiE) survivor. Its funding shared among most of the appropriate bodies in the Birmingham conurbation, it has boosted its prospects of avoiding the fate that has befallen comparable companies by scoring a notable coup. It has persuaded a great playwright - many, particularly in continental Europe, would say the greatest living English playwright - to write it a play.

Edward Bond has been approached by TiE teams before, but on this occasion he felt ready to respond. In full flight from the theatre establishment and what he sees as a corrupting directors' theatre, Bond has refocused his work for audiences less likely to be primed by theatre conventions. This has meant (for the first time in his career) television audiences and also (and more especially) young audiences.

The new piece is called At the Inland Sea, a title which itself could spark discussion for the duration of a lesson. A schoolboy is preparing for exams, his mother unable to leave him be. Into his mind - indeed, into his bedroom - comes a refugee from war, from the Jewish genocide of 50 years ago, from all war. Bond sets up a developing image of suffering and moral incitement, harrowing, disturbing, relentless. He was never an ingratiating writer, and addressing teenagers has not misled him into being any more so.

The bare, simple production - three actors and some sticks of furniture, but also an elaborate soundtrack and a couple of cunning costume effects - is touring schools in the West Midlands throughout the Michaelmas term. I caught it at the Campion School and Community College in Leamington Spa, a welcoming, if severely functional establishment of the kind whose staff-room notice-board bears a chart detailing the "Christmas Show Management Structure".

The visit features two sessions. The morning workshop, devised by the director Geoff Gillham with the actors, proposes that the initially reluctant pupils "explore the imagination". Thoughtful strategies to head off anxiety by exploring it as a dynamic eventually overcome teenage self-consciousness.

The session is skilfully shaped to slide in keys to the play: dread of the unknown, the challenge of new experience, the implications of our shared humanity. The workshop leader, Bobby Colvill, has devoted his career to such techniques, and it shows in the way he convinces you that he is learning with you rather than leading you. He gathers in all the children through eye contact and a non-judgmental response to every tentative reaction.

Once the students have loosened up, they find themselves almost imperceptibly drawn into a drama. Asked to imagine an environment close to few teenagers' concerns - an art gallery - and to project themselves as cleaners working around the exhibits, they are gradually confronted by an art installation that is resonant and offers its own moral challenges. (Oddly enough, a sketch making satire of this very situation turned up in the following edition of Radio 4's Week Ending.)

Both Bond in his play and Big Brum in the support material perceive that most teenagers assimilate such experiences in a very different way from adults. However guarded and stiff, the youngsters are more receptive to the meat of the work, to the life issues rather than the art issues. They have yet to acquire self-protective techniques for neutralising challenges like those offered here, not so much to their intellects or emotions as to their very personalities. By contrast, adults are apt to shrug off the hard questions implied in the material by embracing the fun of performance.

At Campion, there were three teachers present (the pupils only numbered 14), and they energetically joined the workshop. But their adult response is to want to role-play, to act, and their engagement is necessarily knowing and ironic. The more laconic sixth-former, in process of acquiring both the detached stance and the magpie frame of reference of an intellectually inclined cynic, proves almost as apt as the teacher at fending off the more searching implications of the material.

The timetable did not allow class discussion of the visit until a couple of days later. Teacher Peter Leggett reports that his pupils admitted to being "reserved and suspicious" at the outset, "but they were won over during the workshop. I suppose 'gob-smacked' was how they felt about the whole day."

For his money - and money is a prime consideration because such a facility is "an expensive commodity, though they pare their costs to the bone" - the workshop introduction was carefully judged. "The approach was very non-threatening, very slow, very measured, very calm. What was required of the class was so simple. And there was that sudden meshing of the role and their own personal reaction. That was what was particularly clever about the role-play. They were there and in it without their realising it."

Required to explore Bond's 1972 play Lear as part of the exam syllabus, Leggett was clearly delighted to have a new piece by the same writer with which to challenge the students. "They felt the weirdness of it in terms of non-naturalistic presentation, both in the workshop installation and in the play," he says. "Because most of their experience of drama is via television and film, they are pretty much locked into naturalism as an approach. Once they'd got past that, they were impressed with the power of the play before anything was said about understanding it. The genuineness of it came across so that, even though 'weird' was a word a number of them used, they weren't dismissive of it at all.

"Once they'd realised that what they were watching was not a slice of life, they understood that there were connections there for them to draw. It doesn't preach at you, it leaves the audience to do its own work. They wanted to talk about it and work it through because they didn't have a cut-and-dried sense of what it all was. But they picked up, most of them, the important building blocks for making sense of it."

At the Inland Sea is concerned with the importance of bearing witness, of "telling a story", in the play's metaphor. This is also TiE's role, passing the baton to a new generation so that drama itself and the issues it addresses are not forgotten. Big Brum's administrator Maria Gee feels that Bond wrote the play "as an act of solidarity" with TiE. She describes how she first read the play the evening before the fall of Srebrenica and how, alone in the office the next day, she found herself overwhelmed by the intersection of events and the drama she had commissioned.

"I don't know," says Peter Leggett, "but I imagine Bond has come to the conclusion that adults are a waste of time, almost as if their minds are too set and they're not sufficiently open to take in seriously what he has to say. One of the youngsters picked up on the point that history was the very subject that the boy in the play failed in his exam, and maybe because he was taking it too seriously. I suspect Bond feels that, for adults, his work is just another story."