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Class Act 21

Greg McHugh has come a long way since his first he was a sixth former
in Thomas Aquinas’ school in Edinburgh. This should be obvious from the
second series of Gary: Tank Commander, the military based sit-com
co-written by the RSAMD-trained actor and stand-up, the first episode
of which aired last night. Playing the title role, McHugh is happy to
explore the lighter side of army life by way of his fictional Iraq
veteran. Back in 1997, however, he had other things on his mind.

McHugh and others in his high school class had been invited to take
part in Class Act, the Traverse theatre, Edinburgh’s innovative
education project, which sees students mentored by professional
playwrights as they develop a script to be performed in public by
actors under further guidance of working directors. McHugh and his
peers were put in the care of David Harrower, whose debut play, Knives
in Hens, was a major hit at the Traverse that year, and continues to
be produced around the world to this day. Harrower’s spare writing
style would later be applied to the equally devastating Blackbird at
the Edinburgh International Festival. Rather than fall into the
youthful trap of slavish homage, however, McHugh came up with something
completely different.

“It was about a guy who thought he was in a computer game,” says
McHugh, looking back on his formative early work. “He was having a
nervous breakdown, and was looking for a purpose in life. It was poorly
written and full of bad ideas, but then the actors came in and it
became something different. I remember not entirely agreeing with some
of the ways they interpreted the text, but didn’t have the confidence
to say so, so quietly let it go. But to be honest it was absolutely
impractical as a script, so they probably did it a favour.”

Thirteen years on, and, like McHugh, Class Act has come of age as it
celebrates its twenty-first year with a special gala night that takes
one play that encapsulates each year of its existence. As the scheme’s
most high-profile graduate to date, McHugh will host.

As the theatre’s head of Traverse Learning for the last four years,
Noelle O’Donoghue inherited an already thriving state of affairs that
by its very nature has already affected several generations of young

“I was really excited by it”, O’Donoghue recalls, already in the thick
of preparations for Class Act 21. A lot of education and outreach
programmes are brilliant, but the difference here is that we treat the
writers exactly the same as we would a professional writer, developing
drafts over a long ;period of time rather than just a couple of days.
Whenever you speak to anyone involved in Scottish theatre, everybody
knows about it, because everybody’s worked on it. Kevin McKidd did it
when he was starting out, so it’s as much about actors and directors
gaining experience as it is for the young writers.”

Professional writers on board this year include Blackwatch writer
Gregory Burke, author of Carthage Must Be Destroyed Alan Wilkins and
writer of Lifeboat, Nicola McCartney. With some twenty-four actors on
board, directors for the gala will include Traverse alumni including
former artistic director Philip Howard and ex associate director Lorne

Such a retrospective will give those in attendance to see the changing
mores of young people. Thematically, while the 1990s brought about a
slew of post-Trainspotting in-yer-face style miniatures, more recent
preoccupations are with technology. This year even finds one piece set
in a smoking room. Stylistically too, there are differences between age

“We often find with the fourth years they’re quite fearless”,
O’Donoghue explains, “so they’re the ones writing about aliens or
talking animals or inanimate objects that come to life. The sixth years
can be a bit more angsty, and tend to write more about teenage
pregnancy, abuse or much bigger issues. But then, they’ve reached an
age where they know what they think about the world and they want to
tell everyone what they think, so that’s okay.

“It’s interesting as well talking to the young people involved, because
we’re working with both English and Drama classes, and what you find is
that not everyone wants to get up and act, but are much more interested
with what goes on behind the scenes than they are in getting up in
front of everyone.”

Jane Ellis was the Traverse’s Education Officer in 1990 when she and
Leith Academy drama teacher Jenny Wilson initiated Class Act in the
theatre’s old Grassmarket home.

“We used to have lots of school parties who would come in and have
tours around the theatre”, Ellis remembers. “Some of them would ask how
you went about writing a play, so that was the start of what was
originally a little experiment, and we just ran with it after that. The
first year was really successful, or we wouldn’t have done it again. I
suppose we were trying to get more young people into the theatre as
well. It was always quite easy to get teachers interested in
Shakespeare, because that was on the curriculum, but not so much in new
work. So by getting both English and drama departments involved, we
could tap into the curriculum as well. After that the teachers were mad
for it, and we ended up with something like twenty-eight schools in the
Lothians being involved. We developed it and took it out to the
Borders, but at the start we weren’t aware of anything like Class Act,
so initially at least we had no idea what we were doing, and I think
it’s incredible that it’s still going.”

Since O’Donoghue took charge, Class Act has expanded operations to
cover Glasgow schools via a link up with the city’s Tron Theatre. There
are even more developments ahead.

“For me”, she says, “the interesting thing would be to get more young
people in each school involved. I think there are other theatre skills
people could learn. Also, one of the things we want to look at are the
different ways of making theatre that aren’t strictly about writing.
But whatever they’re interested in, if even one young person involved
kin Class Act comes back to the theatre or follows some kind of
professional path, then that’s a testament to its success.”

McHugh is living proof. While he initially studied business at Stirling
University prior to going to drama school in Glasgow, he admits that
without the experience of Class Act, it’s unlikely he would be doing
what he does today.

“Up to that point we’d had people who came into class and did talks on
various things,” McHugh recalls, “but this was a whole lot realer. Just
to be able to talk to someone like David Harrower was great. The whole
process fascinated me, being in the rehearsal room and seeing how
things worked and learning how to be objective about your work. Being
able to ask questions and see what actors and a director do with these
words you’ve written on a page. It was a real project.”

Class Act 21, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, January 27-28.


Class Act 21 panel
Neil Cooper

The Class Act 21 Gala Performance will feature: -

Year Title Playwright(s)

1990 - Fresh Air Freak - Julie Dunleavy, Jacky Spence, Louise Smith,
Michael Martin, Elouise Norns, Amanda Cuthburt and Amanda Paget –
Craigroyston Community High School

1991 - Last Exit to the DHSS - Paul Harkins - Holyrood RC High School

1992 – Height - Steven Vass - Craigmount High School

1993 - Passing of Time - Sally Runciman - Galashiels Academy

1994 – Café - Natalie Blair, Elisa Laing and Jane Tierney - Linlithgow

1995 - A Dream Come True - Billy Sommerville, Kristian MacAulay and
Cameron Wishart - Firrhill High School

1996 - Get Up and Go! - Emma Waugh and Alana Walder - Holyrood RC High

1997 - What Goes Around Comes Around - Dionne Walker and Shirley White
- Drummond Community High School

1998 – Flies - Jennifer Millar and Leroy Harris - Boroughmuir High

1999 - Sugar Mummies - Steven Christie - Musselburgh Grammar School

2000 - The Coming of the Aliens - Alison Farmer and Katherine Calder -
Queensferry High School

2001 – Geoff - Euan Alexander - Balerno Academy

2002 - To (Beep) Or Not To (Beep) - Hannah Baker, Scott McCue and Nikki
Summers - Liberton High School

2003 – Escape - Ben McKay - Trinity Academy

2004 - The Sack - Azadeh Darvishadeh - Drummond Community High School

2005 - Old Love Can’t Die? - Deike Borchardt - West Calder High School

2006 – Armaneddon - CJ Cook - Broxburn Academy

2007 - The Outsider - Steven McMahon - Broughton High School (part of
Trinity Academy group)

2008 - Banana Split - Katie Arnott, Marc Campbell, Nicola Robertson,
Danielle Smith and Kayleigh Wilson - Tynecastle High School

2009 – Chantelle - Claire Grant - Balerno Community High School

2010 - Thirteenth Night - Connor Milliken - Hillpark Secondary

The Herald, January 4th 2010



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