The Big River

The Big River was a schools’ drama project organised by TEDCO, inspired by Jimmy Nail’s 1995 song of that name. A number of schools on Tyneside were invited to participate, each with its own particular speciality which would be supported by a professional in that area. Then each school was asked to choose a second art form to work alongside their allocated form, again supported by a professional in the field. Each school would create a performance for a public showing at the Customs House in South Shields.

It was not long before my retirement, so The Big River formed part of Lathan’s Last Hurrah!

At King George we were—probably inevitably—allocated theatre as our main art form and I chose video as the support. We were given playwright Neil Armstrong from Seaham as our drama support, which was great because I’d known Neil (who is also a director and actor) for some time, and as our video support we were given James Demarco of FNA Films, an American living in Gateshead.

The theme of the performance we were to produce had to be “The Big River”, something about the River Tyne. After much discussion, we chose the story of the man who waved at ships, which became the title of the play which Neil wrote.

‘The Man’ was a tramp who stood or sat by the roundabout from which a road leads down to the Customs House on the riverside and every time a ship went past, whether up- or downriver, he would wave at it. He was something of a South Shields institution but nobody seemed to know why he did this. Those who had looked fairly closely (but not too closely) saw that he was muttering something but no one knew what.

It was assumed that he was wishing them a safe voyage but I learned later (from one who had got close enough!) that what he was saying was actually, “you’re all going to die! You’re all going to fuckin’ die!” However I didn’t learn this until a year or two later, so it didn’t influence the play Neil wrote.

I would direct the show, with Neil chipping in whenever he thought he could help. It was quite a surreal piece so I thought that perhaps we should tell it in a non-naturalistic way, so the story was partly told as a piece of Commedia dell’ Arte, complete with masks and accompanied by one of the boys in the cast playing violin, and partly through video. Sometimes the video was the backdrop (the ships he waved at) and sometimes we used odd angles to support the Commedia feel. At one point, for example, a pound coin was supposed to roll down the street and into a drain, so we put the camera on the ground, pointing up at the Commedia characters who were following the coin and whose reactions told the story.

It was great fun, we all learned a lot and it was well received at the Customs House showing.

There was a public session a little while later in which participants were to evaluate their work. A sure-fire way, we thought, of boring everybody to death, so we would use a play as the frame for the evaluation, a play which involved two girls playing rats in full costume and mask (don't ask!) (Well alright, we had the masks so why not use them?), a character called Super Business Adviser Man (yes, really!) and many digs at me:

“He didn’t tell us we had to evaluate the show!”
“And he’s late!”
“If he even turns up!”

And yes, it was meant to be a send-up of the event itself and all the managerial box-ticking under which education was (as far as I was concerned anyway) drowning.

But it was fun as well.

We worked bloody hard in the Performing Arts Department at King George but we enjoyed ourselves too.

And at the end of that school year—August 2003—I retired from teaching and immediately launched (well, relaunched!) my freelance theatre career.