Every child in Scotland will see a performing arts production in their school each year if the National Theatre of Scotland’s plans go ahead. Lucy Mason reviews the first year of a trailblazing new pilot.

Photo of young children with actors on stage
School children at St Bernard’s Primary School following a performance of Martha

Colin Hattersley

Rasing the quality of theatre productions touring into schools is a shared aspiration of Imaginate and the National Theatre of Scotland. Last year we conceived a new partnership, along with Catherine Wheels Theatre CompanyVisible Fictions and Starcatchers, to do just this and to create a presenting model that could be sustainable and responsive.

Touring into schools is vital if you want to make a genuine commitment to being truly accessible and to growing a new generation of theatre-curious children

We announced Theatre in Schools Scotland (TiSS) as a three-year pilot with a clear aim to support and develop the provision of theatre in Scotland’s schools. Our long-term ambition is that every child receives a minimum of one performing arts production in their school or nursery each year as a core part of their education.

The pilot would test this model to see whether it was achievable. Specifically, it would test whether income models could be developed in partnership with local authorities, funders, schools, other theatres, cultural agencies and through sponsorship, and if we could build an infrastructure that allowed for the tours to increase their remit and reach year on year.

First year shows

For the first pilot year, two award-winning Scottish shows were chosen by the steering group: ‘Martha’ written by Andy Manley, Gill Robertson and Annie Wood and directed by Gill Robertson, presented by Catherine Wheels Theatre Company for Primary 1 to 4 children; and ‘Shopping for Shoes’ by Tim Crouch and directed by Dougie Irvine, presented by Visible Fictions for Primary 5 to 7. The shows were chosen as they targeted specific age groups, were tour-ready and had previously received wide critical acclaim.

They toured to 62 primary schools, with 121 performances, reaching an audience of nearly 11,000 children.

Funding and commitment

The tours were funded through contributions from The Scottish Salmon Company (SSC), with matchfunding from Arts & Business Scotland, and about 30 different local authorities and regional partners.

“I feel strongly that children need to experience live theatre. They need to experience being part of an audience. The emotional response to live theatre cannot be matched.” – Teacher, Dumfries & Galloway

“The best thing about Theatre in Schools Scotland has been [the opportunity] to bring such high-quality, stimulating theatre to our pupils who live in an area of high disadvantage and to make them appreciate and value their experiences. It has increased their desire to attend further performances.” – Teacher, City of Edinburgh

“I think this performance would be hard to beat. If we could have a performance like that every year, it would be a real asset to our teaching and learning resources.” – Teacher, Eilean Siar

The SSC came on board as it is particularly interested in finding ways to engage with the remote Scottish communities where their employees live and work. This desire echoed our aim to extend the reach across all of Scotland’s 32 local authority areas.

With SSC’s support, the number of performances was double what would otherwise have been possible. These included visits to primary schools in Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (the Western Isles), the Highlands and in Argyll & Bute Council. The shows also toured to Orkney, the Shetland Islands and the Isle of Skye.

Touring into schools is vital if you want to make a genuine commitment to being truly accessible and to growing a new generation of theatre-curious children. Each supporting local authority was involved in making choices about the schools to be involved and each school was offered both productions.

TiSS producers arranged all the practicalities directly with the headteacher and companies to ensure minimum disruption to the school. Online classroom resources were shared in advance and after the theatre visit to add value to the experience.

During the pilot, TISS focused on the development of digital content to run alongside each show. Other developments include establishing a teacher consultation group that will be involved in future planning as well as investigating ways of measuring and sharing the impact on audiences and families.

An unbeatable experience

Working with many partners on one initiative is not without its problems, as is touring into non-theatre spaces. Finding more money year on year to meet the ambitions of the initiative will also prove tough. However, TiSS has received nothing but positive feedback from the children and teachers who experienced the shows and all those who have invested in it.

From August to October, TiSS will present ‘Up to Speed’, produced and created by Rosalind Sydney in association with Catherine Wheels, and Visible Fictions’ ‘Jason and the Argonauts’. We are looking forward to meeting the next 11,000 children in classrooms across Scotland and to introducing many of them for the first time to the unbeatable experience of live theatre.

Lucy Mason is Interim Chief Executive of the National Theatre of Scotland.
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