A. DRIZZLY afternoon in
the East End. The G.L.C.'s not-too-posh theatre at Toynbee Hall. The atmosphere magical with enjoyment. The lights go on. The audience claps and yells. Someone remarks: "I think I liked it even better than 'Diamonds are .Forever."
Behind the scenes a leading member of the cast bursts into tears but finds immediate solace in the lap of Kaye Webb. editor of Puffin Books. "I can't bear it," he sobs. "To think its all over." Outside in the foyer a man from the Young Vic is discussing the possibility of putting this play on in his own theatre.
The play in question is a colourful and remarkably professional production of "Tom Sawyer." The actors are children (not picked particularly for any acting ability) culled from miscellaneous London schools who, for a variety of reasons, have met each other at Clare Ash's Theatre Workshop which operates on Saturday mornings only at the Sydney Webb Teacher Training College for mature students.
Clare Ash is a small dark. elfin Bostonian — with personality like a minor electric shock and five children of her own — who is Sydney Webb's lecturer in drama and English. She is married to a tall English don who is always teasing her about what he calls her "new world enthusiasm."
"Teaching is an exhausting business for anyone," she says, "and if you happen to be in love it's a real help. It makes you 'blossom and bloom. It gives you energy. Teaching is such damned hard work, and by hard work I mean working flat out to the very limit of your best.
"It's far more exhausting to teach badly than to teach well. The rewarding thing is that the work you put into teaching really shows. The kids know it and remark upon it.
"One of my main reasons for running this theatre workshop is to get across to the students as well as the kids that it can be fun to work hard, and to work as a team. But this isn't always Obvious until you've actually done it.
"Student teachers say to -me: 'We never dreamed that children could enjoy working so hard.' Once you've established such an atmosphere it's contagious in the same way is boredom or violence are contagious.
"1 work with a co-director. We spend at least one day a week planning our Saturday mornings. We work it all out like a TV programme. But our aim is not to turn out a -bunch of little professionals. The most important thing we do is to explore relationships,
"We do a lot of unscripted playlets about the human situation based on the kids' personal experiences which teaches them to see things from another's point of view. For instance. the giving and receiving .of presents. You get a present from your mother and you hate it. Do you behave as you feel?
"Then we reverse the roles. Which makes them aware of how the giver may feel, This could lead to i discussion about lies. What is the worst kind of lie? Is it ever actually a good thing to tell a — and so on.
"This sort of role play teaches them that it takes thought and effort, understanding and corn-passion to make proper value judgments — to create and maintain relationships. We play persuasion roles. disciplinary roles; with the kids acting as teacher or mother.
"We also play all kinds of theatre games — acting out abstractions or building a machine, first quite fast. then in slow motion. We play games of concentration a skill which is always in need of sharpening.
"My kids are an active bunch. Not particularly saintly. But on Saturday mornings they are extraordinarily nice and unselfish and cooperative. It's the relationship between them, between them and us that I make much of. We care about them and let them know it, and we insist they care about each other.
"There are no in-groups allowed, no whispering in corners. We tell them at the beginning: 'You only say kind things here. everything else is nut.' This atmosphere of mutual kindness is essential to progress. No one is allowed to criticise in the accepted manner.
'The only things they say about each other's performance is what was good about it. How it could be improved. 1 don't criticise either. I say: 'You must think more about that bit' or 'You didn't really believe in what you were saying. did you?' Much better than going on about how awful something is. I think you
have to accept that kids are trying to give of their best even if it doesn't look that way.
"We make a great etffort to get to know everyone very well. You can't put on a good play with a bunch of strangers. They all call me by niy first name. I talk to them llone ot ring up if I think son eone is unhappy or puzzled or unsure.
"We involve parents if we can. One father — a carpenter — made most of our scenery. A mother usually comes in and does the make-up. The kids love this. Until a feeling of belonging is established you get nowhere.
"They soon learn that you don't get to know people properly through proximity alone. We have long agonising discussions about what we ought to do. I ask them to read as many books as they can and to give thought to any which strike them as good inaterial for a play. We write all our own scripts.
"I'm very aware of the competition thing. A child who has had a large part in one play inevitably gets a smaller one in the next. But we try to make sure that all parts have something to offer. rigardless of size.
"One small girl catne to me during 'Tom Sawyer' and said : 'Look, I'm not complaining, but I've only got three lines and two of them are off-stage.' We immediately put 1/4(11 right.
"Some Saturday rhornings we run a practical workshop. The kids learn how to wire plugs, make clothes, ; put on make-up, design and make effective-looking jewellery from all kinds of imlarobable materials; how to operate a dimmer board. how to simulate • different noises. They love doing these things themselves.
"1 think it's a great pity that it's fashionable today to think that acting doesn't need much in the way of costume or scenery. Surely the point ot most theatre is the magic and the make-believe'? ' Besides, you've got to be a brilliant actor to do without such props.
"This is even more obvious when you get some of the shyest kids in front of a good set with good fighting effects. They literally take off. They forget all about themselves and become the character they are playing.
"It's extraordinary what a false moustache can do. And it all helps to make literature and the English la nguage something very exciting to learn. I don't see why French or history can't be taught in the same way."