Joyce McMillan on Theatre in Schools Scotland

Shows touring Scotland in the Autumn include Jason and the Argonauts PIC: Douglas McBride
Shows touring Scotland in the Autumn include Jason and the Argonauts PIC: Douglas McBride
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A new project sees companies join forces to bring the magic of drama to youngsters across the country

The pictures that come with the press release tell the story, most vividly. They show a 1960s school building set against a steep green hillside somewhere in Scotland and in front of it, a small van, bearing the pale-blue-and-white legend Theatre In Schools Scotland.

The back doors of the van are open, and out of it tumble a couple of actors, and all the puppets and props belonging to a show called Martha, created by leading Scottish children’s theatre company Catherine Wheels back in 1999, and seen, since then, not only in Scotland and England, but in Canada, the United States, the Netherlands, China and Singapore.

In the picture, there are primary-age school children gathered round the van, lending a hand; there are also two happy-looking teachers, smiling in support.

And together, they represent what should be a common sight, in Scotland in 2017. The idea of theatre in schools has been around in Scotland since the 1960s, and has always been recognised as a vital and joyful contribution to children’s education. What’s more, it ticks all the boxes of current Scottish educational policy, which aims to give culture and the arts an important place in children’s lives.

Yet in practice, the process of getting theatre into schools can be ferociously complicated, and is often beyond the resources of individual companies, which is why last year, Scotland’s children’s theatre organisation Imaginate – best known for running the annual Edinburgh International Children’s Festival – came together with the National Theatre of Scotland to create the three-year TISS project, designed to set up an infrastructure that will enable companies to tour their finest work much more regularly and easily into a wide range of Scottish schools.

“The main problem,” says Imaginate’s chief executive, Paul Fitzpatrick, “is that when it comes to touring theatre around schools in Scotland, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. In some areas it’s essential to work through the local authority, for example, whereas in others it’s not. In some areas, you can work through theatres – like Eden Court in Inverness – that already have strong schools networks. And everywhere, whatever the system, it tends to depend on building up relationships with individuals who are enthusiastic about making this happen – and then of course, when those individuals move on, it’s back to square one.

“And all of that just makes the whole business incredibly time-consuming for children’s theatre companies that are trying to create world-class work, while also bumping along on a basic income of maybe £200,000 a year or less – barely enough to pay three people, plus overheads. And then there is the fact that you can’t expect any live creative company to produce the same kind of work year after year. So none of them, alone, can create the consistent year-on-year ‘offer’ that you need, to build up a strong initial relationship with schools; whereas by coming together under the TISS umbrella, they can do that, and gradually create more school touring opportunities for everyone.”

The three original partner companies in Theatre In Schools Scotland are Catherine Wheels of Musselburgh, the Glasgow-based Visible Fictions and Starcatchers, Scotland’s company specialising in theatre for tiny tots. Together, they form a board to keep an artistic eye on the project; and in 2017-18, they will be touring Visible Fictions’ internationally successful 2006 version of Jason And The Argonauts and Rosalind Sydney’s 2014 hit Up To Speed, followed by TISS’s first new show, Catherine Wheels’ How To Fix A Broken Wing, by Pete Collins.

For autumn 2018, though, they’re putting out a call for successful shows from other companies to be included in the programme – and with over 100 schools and more than half of Scotland’s local authorities already involved, the hope is that the project will become a permanent part of the Scottish theatre landscape, after its initial three-year trial.

“We think this project offers outstanding value,” says Paul Fitzpatrick, “because for a relatively small investment, it lifts us to a place where schools in Scotland can begin to benefit much more from the work of our children’s theatre companies, and vice versa. Imaginate and the NTS together have invested £50,000 a year in TISS, and we’ve also got great support from our sponsor, the Scottish Salmon Company. And so far, the response from schools has been fantastic – it’s particularly wonderful to see teachers enjoying the shows as much as the children, because that tends to lead to great classroom conversations about the shows, afterwards.”

The NTS’s incoming artistic director, Jackie Wylie is equally enthusiastic. “It’s been incredible coming into an organisation where the aim of creating theatre for everyone is at the heart of everything we do,” she says, “and no project better embodies that aim than this one. We hope that, by bringing world-class live theatre into the classroom and into communities across the country, we’re doing our best to ensure that every child in Scotland has an exciting and inspirational childhood.” And for Paul Fitzpatrick, there’s simply no better way of ensuring that the future of children’s theatre in Scotland is as exciting as its recent past.

“It’s that feeling,” he says, “of seeing children coming into their own school hall, a space they know so well, and finding it utterly transformed by a show that just completely captures their imagination. There really is nothing like it; and for me, that business of coming to children in their own communities, and showing them how much fun theatre can be, and how it can talk to them about their lives while taking them on huge imaginative journeys – well that’s the absolute centre of what we do, and I’m delighted we’ve found a way of bringing that experience to more and more schools and communities, across Scotland.” ■

More details on http://www.theatreinschoolsscotland.com.