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1:13pm on Thursday, 9th February, 2006:

Daughters on the stage


We’re going to watch the school play this evening.

School plays are odd things. Their basic function is to make money for the school while giving the children some extra-curriculum fun. The audience is composed entirely of relatives; the larger the audience, the more money the school makes, therefore the more children who take part in the play, the better. When I was a schoolkid, we used to do regular plays, but the trend these days seems to be musicals. Maybe it’s because they have a chorus, and thus more children can participate and the audience will be larger.

School plays are not as normal plays. Here’s how they work. At primary school, the children start off in the choir, offstage, just singing. A year later, they get to come onto the stage as part of the chorus. A year later, they may get a small speaking part. In the final year, they get a proper role. At secondary school, despite the fact that a year earlier they were the stars, they begin at the bottom again, as part of the chorus. They sing and they dance along with a bunch of others singing and dancing the same material. This happens the next year, too, but the year after they get into a specialist group with extra singing and dancing. The year after that, they get a small speaking role. In the final year, they get to be a star again.

That’s how the children see it. They may not like being in the chorus, but they know that if they keep at it and don't pull out, they’ll get a proper speaking role in their final year and be a star again. It doesn’t matter whether they’re any good at it or not (although the ones who aren’t good will most likely have dropped out before then). The thing is, if they show their dedication and take part in every production, they’ll be rewarded in their final year with a major speaking part.

Things at my daughters’ school started to unravel last year. Some of the year 10 (that’s the second-to-last year, for readers unappraised of the UK school year numbering system — means 14/15 year-olds) pupils who could reasonably have expected a small speaking role were placed in specialist dance groups instead. Others got speaking parts at the expense of year 11s. Worse, a year 9 pupil with some real-world stage experience, was given the star role (in Fame). This wasn’t right. The teacher in charge of the production had somehow got it into his head that he was producing a West End play and that the plum parts should go to those who were better able to perform the roles. This might just about have been acceptable if he'd done it in previous years, but of course he hadn't. It was made significantly worse by the fact that most of the children knew that actually some of his choices weren’t all that great and that better performers had been overlooked. In other words, he’d gone for his favourites. This caused much resentment among the cast, especially among those year 10s who had seen their chance of a small speaking part taken from them by year 9s who happened to be in the teacher's class.

Anyway, as luck would have it, this particular teacher left the school to become a deputy head teacher elsewhere, and a more fairness-aware teacher took over. Hopes were high that order would be restored.

Unfortunately, not having run a school play before, the teacher made a very bad choice as to which to do first: Little Shop of Horrors. This is a musical with very few speaking parts in it, and even fewer major roles. Merely to accommodate the people who'd had speaking parts last year, the group of backing singers had to be split into three groups to rotate through the songs. There’s plenty of opportunity for year 7 children to take part as components of the plant, but for year 11s it’s a desert.

My elder daughter was one of those overlooked last year, despite being one of the top students in drama. She got to dance and was on stage most of the time, but she didn’t get the chance to act. As soon as she saw which play it was going to be this year, she knew she wouldn’t get a top role simply because there were too few; the children who had good roles last year who would be promoted ahead of her. She expected to be asked to perform as one of the backing singers, but no, she wasn’t. Children she’d beaten in the school talent contest for singing got in it ahead of her.

The teacher did offer her a speaking role, but "Call girl #2" is pretty well a walk-on part. She’d get no lines, only a couple of minutes on stage, and that would be that. Even the previous year’s dancing role was superior.

Therefore, my daughter refused the role and joined the orchestra instead, at the request of a music teacher who had a month earlier thrown her out of the school’s Soul Band (20 minutes before she was due to sing) for missing a rehearsal earlier in the week while being on prefect duty. She should have come along and lost her prefect badge instead? This is from a man who didn’t turn up for a public performance at a primary school because he completely forgot about it, leaving us to stand in the rain for 2 hours with the other parents while someone tried to get in touch with him.

In one way, I’m annoyed that this has happened to my daughter. She’s excellent at drama, she’s excellent at music, she's excellent at dance. She had her heart set on starring in the school play the moment she arrived, five years ago, and was devastated when it became apparent last year that she'd been ignored. She'd been considering studying drama at university, yet the teachers didn't pick any of that up.

On the other hand, I think maybe this is a cloud with a silver lining. The acting profession works like that: people get parts because they move in the right circles or they catch the eye of the right person. Most professional actors are good enough to take on most roles, but they just don't get the opportunity to do so. Parts go to people for the wrong reasons all the time. I'd much rather my daughter found this out in school than after she'd tried to establish an acting career for herself. Who knows, perhaps she'll still have a go, but at least now she knows what lies ahead.

As for my other daughter, she's in year 7 so she gets to play a plant frond.

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Copyright © 2006 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).