What Did We Do at School Today?

I didn’t have any intention of saying much about my time as Head of Performing Arts at King George School in South Shields but a couple of days ago my former teaching colleague, Freda Carney who was Head of Music, uploaded a huge number of photographs of Performing Arts activities to a new Facebook group she had set up, snappily entitled “King George School South Shields Performing Arts Memories from 1988” and that brought forth a flood of comments from ex-students (many of whom are in their forties now) such as: “Ee! I remember that!” or “Look at my hair!” or even “Whatever was I thinking of wearing that?”

But there were many comments of a different kind. There was one which asked, “do you remember when we went into an infants’ school to learn how 5-year-olds behave?”

That was to prepare for the school Christmas Carol Service. The Performing Arts Dept always organised the Carol Service and I’d written a short Nativity Play which was to be performed as if by Infant School kids so we went along to see some little ‘uns rehearsing their Nativity. Research to inform our performance!

It was a bit unusual, though. But that’s the way we were. I remember the Head saying at one of our start of year meetings (she always wanted to discuss with us what the PA Dept was going to do during the year), “I don’t know why I’m saying all this. You’ll just do as you want, like you always do.”

We just smiled sweetly.

We tried to give our kids as varied an experience of the performing arts as we could and, I think, we succeeded. There was one group who had moved on to South Tyneside College to do Performing Arts and they popped in to see me, full of the fact others in their group were boasting of having done two or three plays at school—and they’d done 9!

We did things differently. For instance, every year we toured a short (about 30 minutes) show to our feeder primary schools. One year we did some songs from Cats (Don’t tell ALW—he wouldn’t approve!) and we researched how cats move and learned how to imitate them in movement and stillness.

We did two shows a year. One—which was open to all year groups to take part—was a musical and we did, among others, Godspell, Joseph, Return to the Forbidden Planet and Little Shop of Horrors. Freda and I also wrote Drac!, the musical story of how Dracula took over South Shields, starting by abducting a member of the audience! The other show was a straight play, always done by the leavers (year 11). Among them were Steel Magnolias, Teechers and Anouilh’s Antigone.

There was also an annual music concert, a performance of some kind for the Awards Afternoon (aka Speech Day in the dim and distant past), and at Christmas the Choir would sing carols in the town’s main street, King Street. Most years, too, we tried to have a dance evening and the choir would take part in all sorts of events, whether connected with education of not. And, of course, there was the Carol Service.

We did the Expressive Arts GCSE—I didn’t like the Drama syllabus—and sometimes that could lead to something different. One group, for example, created a play about bullying which they took to one of the primaries to play to year 6. But it wasn’t just a simple performance, it was a piece of Forum Theatre.

After performing the play, they talked to the juniors about what could have been done to prevent the serious consequences of the bullying in the play. The primary kids made their suggestions and, while I kept the young ‘uns busy with other activities, the group went away and reworked the play to incorporate the kids’ ideas. They then returned and performed the revamped play and further discussion ensued.

We also became involved in an exciting and thoroughly enjoyable production exchange with the Wuppertal Schools’ Musical Theatre Company, a group of students from two schools in Wuppertal (Germany), the Gymnasium Vohwinkel and the Gesamptschule Vohwinkel. One year they’d come to us with a production (they did, amongst others, West Side Story and Kurt Weill’s One Touch of Venus) and the following year we’d go to them (and among the shows we did were Godspell and our own creation, Drac!) and the kids stayed in each other’s homes. This exchange began in 1995 and lasted until 2003. That was the year I retired and it was the last year of the exchange but it included a special trip to join in the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of twinning between South Shields and Wuppertal. Many of us, both kids and staff, still keep in touch, even meeting occasionally!