Joyce McMillan: Theatre in Schools Scotland project is now reaching children from Shetland to the Borders

Amy McGregor as Jade and Patrick Wallace as Barnaby in Up To Speed at Burnbrae Primary School, Bonnyrigg, Midlothian - a Catherine Wheels production for Theatre In Schools Scotland (TiSS). PIC: Colin Hattersley Photography
Amy McGregor as Jade and Patrick Wallace as Barnaby in Up To Speed at Burnbrae Primary School, Bonnyrigg, Midlothian - a Catherine Wheels production for Theatre In Schools Scotland (TiSS). PIC: Colin Hattersley Photography
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It’s eleven in the morning at Pinkie St Peter’s School in Musselburgh; the sun is shining on the playing fields outside, and Primary 3 are filing into the school hall for a performance of Rosalind Sydney’s show Up To Speed, by Catherine Wheels Theatre company. The two performers, Amy McGregor and Patrick Wallace, are already circling the space, warming up, chatting to the audience as they settle cross-legged on the floor mats; and then the story begins, a far from simple yarn about a girl called Jade and her friend Barney, Primary 6 class-mates who have to give a presentation together about a science subject.

The problem, though, is that for reasons that gradually become apparent, Jade’s mind is not really on the job, as she bulldozes Barney into working on a Doctor Who-inspired presentation about time travel that begins to upset the fragile emotional balance he has achieved after a family tragedy.

The play’s theme, in other words, is the close connection between home and school life, and the ways in which problems in one can affect the other, particularly when we try to keep them hidden; and this class of seven-year-olds seem completely absorbed by it, laughing, pointing things out, responding enthusiastically but gently to the performers, as if they understand that both characters are in a slightly fragile place.

Then after the show, P3 head back to their classroom for a good long discussion of what it meant to them, while a detachment from P7 arrive with clipboards to interview the actors about their work.

To watch Up To Speed is to understand something of what 21st century children’s theatre has to offer to young audiences, in the way of complexity, relevance, and sheer fun; and this is just one of three shows that has been out on tour this year as part of the second year of the Theatre In Schools Scotland project, supported by the National Theatre of Scotland, by Imaginate – the organisation that both organises the annual Edinburgh International Children’s Festival and seeks to promote theatre for children in Scotland all year round – and by three of Scotland’s top children’s companies, Catherine Wheels, Visible Fictions, and Starcatchers. Also on tour this autumn was Visible Fictions’ Jason And The Argonauts, a classic adventure story for older primary school children, and The Story of the Little Gentleman by Catherine Wheels.

“We are really delighted at the response so far,” says Paul Fitzpatrick, chief executive of Imaginate, who helps co-ordinate TISS along with producer Anna Derricourt, and representatives from all the companies involved. “The whole process is quite a learning-curve, and it really is a matter of finding the best way of working with teachers who really want to do this, whether we work through local authorities or individual schools or existing theatres or touring networks.

“One thing we’ve learned this autumn, for example, is that in some areas it works particularly well if we use the secondary school where the children will soon be going as a hub for our performances – so we’re hoping that in that way theatre in schools can also perhaps help children during that really important transition from primary to secondary.”

TISS is a highly ambitious project in terms of geographical reach. This year, it has involved pupils from 153 schools across more than half of Scotland’s local authority areas, from Shetland to the Borders. It also aims eventually to provide theatre for all age groups, from nursery to secondary school; and this summer’s TISS callout for a tried-and-tested Scottish-made production to form part of next year’s programme attracted more than 40 applications.

“I’m proud of what’s happening with TISS,” says Gill Robertson, the award-winning artistic director of Catherine Wheels, “because it’s a partnership that works – it gets more theatre into schools, and it gives Scottish-based companies more opportunities to develop their work with schools audiences. And schools audiences really are the best, in many ways. They’re big, they’re the right age, they really want to be there, and they represent a complete cross-section of society. Who wouldn’t want to reach an audience like that? I find it really rewarding, and sometimes quite transformational.” And if the idea of taking theatre to audiences in the communities where they live has an honourable history in Scotland, going back to 7:84 and beyond, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the recent rapid development of TISS has become possible because today Scotland has not one but two nation-wide theatre organisations, in the National Theatre of Scotland and Imaginate, which are more than happy to co-operate in continuing that tradition, and transforming the landscape for theatre in schools.

“TISS is a project that fits perfectly with our values of being a theatre without walls, that tries to reach into communities all over Scotland,” says NTS artistic director Jackie Wylie. “It’s a really flexible project – we keep changing the model slightly to respond to feedback – and the idea of partnership is right at the core of it. And above all, for all the organisations involved, there’s this generosity of spirit, a real passion for bringing theatre into children’s lives at the very start of their lives, and making it part of their world.”

Robertson agrees: “The long-term impact of a project like this is hard to measure, of course. But if you believe that theatre, and storytelling through theatre, are vital ways of understanding the world and its problems, and imagining new ways of being and seeing, then making sure that children have access to that from an early age has to be a hugely significant thing; maybe one of the most important things any theatre company can do.” ■

For more information about Theatre In Schools Scotland, visit www.theatreinschoolsscotland.com