It’s a common myth that GCSE Drama is a ‘doss-subject’, with little real work involved. In my first years at Furze Platt, I was of that opinion too, and whilst I enjoyed partaking in the art form in extra-curricular activities, I wasn’t convinced that it was a subject I wanted to take as one of my four GCSE options, alongside German, Music, and History. It was only because Mrs Bradley (then Miss Baldwin) was sat at the exit of the Year 9 Options Evening school hall event that made me finally commit to continuing it in lesson-time. But boy, how wrong I was about it being a soft option.
Drama, uniquely, is a subject which requires a huge amount of often unseen effort from all members of a group, with hours spent in breaktimes, lunchtimes, and after school (in fact, my group, like many others, decided not to waste the strike day and instead held a rehearsal all afternoon). The groups we were put into were chosen by our teacher, and all groups were given the same stimulus of ‘riots’. This, for me, was a dream – on seeing the work of last year’s cohort, performed around the time of the violent student fees protest, I’d immediately had an idea based on different perspectives of the story. My idea featured a journalist, desperate for a story and a byline, searching London for a winning article.
And so work began in September on our piece, by which point the summer riots had drawn everybody’s attention. With a variety of characters included, from a police officer’s wife nervously awaiting her husband’s arrival to Amy Weston (the photographer who captured the defining image of the terror of the burning blazes), I was sure that our piece would be edgy, interesting, and thought-provoking.
Tonight, my school’s new Music and Drama facilities were officially opened by The Right Honourable Theresa May MP, followed by a twenty-minute show incorporating all three performing arts. Ms White, the headmistress, began the proceedings with a short welcome, before Mrs May made an address to the audience of 82.
I was reminded of a line in David Ward’s book Transformation, which tells the story of the construction of the new RST, a theatre we visited in June. Though our construction took just six months to complete (five months less than the construction of the Courtyard Theatre described in the text), and the fact our new stage lies on what was once a part of the field (rather than a Stratford-upon-Avon car-park), the message is the same. Furze Platt’s new Drama block has been put up in astonishing speed. Even taking into account the delays and extended handover dates, the building is hugely impressive for a school, and extraordinary for a non-performing arts specialist school.
"Ten days before Midsummer’s Day in 2006, actor Richard Cordery walked on to the thrust stage of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon, pointed to a woman in the front row, and said: ‘It’s hard to imagine, madam, but 11 months ago I parked my car exactly where you are sitting.’"
— David Ward, Tranformation, first published 2011
As Year 13 Ryan Tomlinson walked into the spotlight, he began reciting part of Jaques’s All The World’s A Stage soliloquy from Shakespeare‘s As You Like It. This introduced a short film with photos of the construction of the new buildings, pre-timed to the Chamber Choir (of which I’m a member) singing Hallelujah live, from the gantry around the stage. As a singer, it wasn’t the easiest ‘gig’ I’ve ever played, with my sightline of Miss Watson, the conductor, severed by a huge number of theatre lights. Even so, I’m pretty proud of the sound we made.
Next on stage was Nicole Mather dancing a solo ballet piece. When her routine finished, she was joined by six other GCSE Dance students in my year, who performed a more modern dance.
Guitarist Lois Brown then played a Spanish piece on her instrument, beautifully lit by a red spotlight.
"Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything."
— All The World’s A Stage, as recited by Ryan Tomlinson at the opening ceremony of the new Drama and Music facilities, 11 November 2011
There was a reprise of Hallelujah as the short show came to an end, with Ms White then taking the stage once again to close the ceremony.
"I was going to come on and say ‘Hallelujah’,but I’m almost speechless. You can see by the quality of the arts here at Furze Platt that the new facilities will be warmly received."
— Ms White, Headteacher of Furze Platt School, on the opening ceremony of the new Drama and Music facilities,11 November 2011
Before everyone went home, there was just time for William Shaw and Ben Spurgeon to demonstrate the capabilities of the new state-of-the-art recording studio (crafted in the shell of an old Music classroom) on the other side of the campus.
I remember the cold morning earlier this year clearly when, during a choir-practice for the upcoming spring concert, I first caught wind of Mr Bown’s ambitious plan to reorder the Music and Drama facilities at my school, including the creation of an entirely new building. Mr Bown is one of the Deputy Headteachers at Furze Platt, and I can see a lot of myself in him; a former Drama teacher at a different school, he has a passion for performing arts, has a love for the English language, and regularly works on videos to be shown at various events hosted by the school (including the one I made for him for Open Evening last year). Initially, I thought nothing of this latest scheme of his – he’d been secretly thinking about how he could improve the facilities since I joined, if not before. But this time, it was different: the governors had agreed to the proposal and the money had been found. Furze Platt was to become one of the best-equipped schools for Music and Drama in the Royal Borough.
Construction work started in early May, with the arrival of dumper trucks, excavators, and metal fencing, which cordoned off what had once been a shortcut from the rugby pitch to the PE changing rooms. Within weeks, the Drama department’s possessions – everything, from scripts and prop swords to wigs and scenery used in some of the school’s musicals – would be packed up in boxes and hidden away for months, so as to allow the conversion of the old Drama terrapins into a state-of-the-art recording studio, three new instrumental practice rooms, and a large new Music classroom. Lessons in the interim would take place in the main hall and in the gym.
The Music department were given a little longer before they had to ‘get out’ of their block, due to the continuing composing coursework of our Year 10 class, completed in lesson time under new ‘Controlled Assessment’ rules. Because the keyboards and Sibelius software needed for the work only existed in one classroom, the sledgehammer-wielding men had to wait for us to finish the twenty-hour-long ‘exam’ before they could get started. Eventually, though, every drum, pair of headphones, and poster of the Beatles was boxed up and stored in the rather novel location of the boys’ toilets.
As I had been from the beginning, though, I remained sceptical of whether the project would be ready in time. Originally hoped to be open by the time we returned from the summer holidays, the deadline was soon pushed back a week. Even so, the metal framework for the building had barely been completed as I cycled home on the last day of the summer term. I knew as well as anybody else that it wouldn’t be finished on time, and Mr Bown reportedly had many "a stern word" with the builders, to ensure a further extension to the deadline would not be necessary.
As I’d predicted, come September, the dustsheets and metal fencing still surrounded the construction site. There were no doorframes, let alone pathways, as behind the brick walls, the majority of the building was still an empty shell.
That said, on the other side of the campus, things were looking up for Mrs Armstrong, Head of Music. She introduced me to Miss Watson, her new second-in-line, and proudly showed me around the new block. There was still an electrician working on the recording studio, and the computers weren’t working in either of the two classrooms, but she had at least got somewhere to teach.
As for Mrs Bradley (Head of Drama) and her new Drama teacher, Miss Satterthwaite, the second-week-back deadline had been forgotten about completely. Another few weeks of having nowhere for either teacher to call home followed. But then, at last, news surfaced that we’d be having our first Drama lesson in the new space in the last week of September. It too wasn’t finished, but it was in a state in which we could start using it. "Do you want to see it?" Mrs Bradley asked rhetorically. And oh my goodness, how excited we were on that first day we walked in.
The building is made up of a corridor containing an office, a prop-store, and two toilets, and at the end of the wood-panel flooring are the two drama studios. One is a pretty small yet tall rehearsal room, while the other is a tremendous performance space, with a control desk and gantry overlooking the stage.
Even at the start of this week, though, it wasn’t complete. The lights were only put in a couple of weeks ago, and the projector and drop-down screen were fitted just last week. The black curtains that run around the entire perimeter of the larger studio weren’t there even three days ago.
But now they are. The £1 million building project has finished. Through blood, sweat, and tears, Mr Bown and the heads of the two departments (among so many others) have worked so tirelessly to secure some excellent facilities for our school.
The actress who plays Lady Sybil Crawley in the hugely successful series Downton Abbey, Jessica Brown-Findlay, attended Furze Platt as a child. Who knows what roles the students of today will be in in in ten years’ time?