Fringe benefits

Peter Bird outlines the risks and rewards of performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the world’s largest arts event

It’s been a good few weeks since our pupils returned from performing at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, yet the event is still the talk of the term. Lambrook was one of only a few preparatory schools to take on the challenge of performing at the 2014 Fringe, with children as young as ten acting on the stage. With sold out performances and great feedback from audiences, there’s no doubt it’s been a critical success. What’s been far more rewarding, though, has been to witness how the children themselves have benefitted from their Fringe experience.

Allowing children to perform outside their comfort zone, to a paying and discerning crowd, considerably raises the standard of acting. And, for those talented pupils who always nab the leads and best parts, the Fringe is a real opportunity to stretch their ability. But what I most love about taking school casts to the Fringe is that it piques the interest of children who may never have engaged in drama within school. Whether it’s the Fringe’s unique and offbeat image, or the chance to hobnob with a few celebrities, a school casting director is very likely to be overwhelmed with interest in the run-up to August.

The Fringe experience also magnifies the many advantages that drama brings to children’s development: learning to work as a team, taking personal responsibility, self-discipline and organisational skills. For example, the event’s compact schedule requires all acts to work to tight deadlines on everything from technical rehearsals through to exiting the venue. There’s no room for overruns, re-runs, or sloppiness. With critics and seasoned theatregoers in the audience, the young cast are also expected to deliver their best performance – day after day. Being aware of this expectation and rising to the occasion, rather than crumbling under the pressure, will help children in other spheres of school life, from the exam room to the sports field.

However, it’s also worth being aware of some of the risks before rushing to sign up your school for the next Fringe run.

Firstly, and as you might expect, there’s a huge amount of work involved. One shouldn’t underestimate the standard that the children need to reach and, as such, the rehearsal time required is considerable. It’s vital to ensure adequate time in the school diary to prepare.

Another issue is how to make your cast as inclusive as possible, while delivering plays to the highest standard. I was fortunate in having a group of children come forward who all performed brilliantly: however, I would certainly be open to other ways of engaging children in the Fringe experience, whether as official photographer, designer, or news reporter.

Another potential area of risk lies in choosing the right type of play. Ideally, you want to offer the students a challenge, whilst not biting off more than you (or they) can chew. One of the plays I chose (‘Blood Brothers’) required the children to play the same character across different ages. This presents them with the challenge of trying to imagine adult feelings, views and scenarios.

Despite all this, I would still strongly advocate schools taking on the Fringe challenge. Being involved in a vast cultural event like this can bring an incredible buzz to the school, and I’m so delighted to have been involved again this year.

I do hope other schools will get involved too – just don’t steal all our punters!

Peter Bird is Head of English at Lambrook School

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