Said to be ‘part comedy, part social experiment’, Back to School ran throughout August 2012 as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The show was the brainchild of comedienne Clementine Wade, who also played the headmistress and is the horizontal blonde in this school photo:
The idea came from the famous Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971, a roleplaying exercise which explored the psychological effects of being subject to coercive authority in an institution. According to Clementine,
‘Whether we loved or loathed school, we’ve all been through it! The nightmares, the celebrations, the trials and tribulations, all make up its theatre. Using this well-known format, normally the exclusive privilege of the young, the audience can relax from the responsibilities of adult life, enjoy the luxury of learning, whilst potentially exorcising a few demons.’
This was a site-specific and interactive show. The venue, Braidwood Community Centre, became ‘Saint Dumbiedyke’s School’, and the audience became the pupils. On arrival, they were given an exercise book, a name tag and a locker, and were divided up into three ‘classes’. After the ‘morning assembly’, each class was then shepherded around the ‘school’ to attend lessons. At any given moment in the show, there would be three lessons running concurrently, so that one class might be dissecting insects in Science while another was being taught to flirt in Sex Education and a third did Art. There was a ‘dinner hour’, a final examination and a recorded graduation address from television personality Jonathan Ross. The show offered an entire school career boiled down into ninety minutes of immersive theater.
The ‘lessons’ were, in effect, semi-scripted sketches by contributors ranging from young playwright Ella Hickson to the great Ranjit Bolt. But if the show was semi-scripted, it was also semi-improv, with the audience encouraged to participate and put the actors on their mettle. It is said that some relished the opportunity for misbehavior their younger selves never risked. And from time to time, individual ‘pupils’ found themselves randomly pulled out of lessons for a visit to the headmistress.
That might be a terrifying prospect for a naughty schoolgirl, but one thing it certainly didn’t involve in Back to School was any kind of corporal punishment. In promenade shows where the cast and audiences occupy the same space, actors are routinely instructed, for health and safety reasons, to avoid so much as touching any member of the audience. Spanking and caning were obviously never going to be a part of the performance.
With any fringe theater project, publicity was key. Clementine Wade’s original idea for the poster image, to be shot by photographer Clare McGregor, was a parody of the Britney Spears schoolgirl video Hit Me, Baby, One More Time, with Clementine herself in the role of Britney.
She went cold on that idea after remembering a critical review she’d had six years earlier in which the reviewer condescendingly compared her to none other than… Britney Spears. Out went Hit Me, Baby and in came the entire cast, dressed up as both teachers and pupils, posing for the school photograph.
But the imaginations of Clare McGregor and the actors also ranged a little more widely during the publicity shoot. The one to watch is the girl in the back row, actress Milanka Brooks. She may look as if she’s behaving herself in the group photo, but there is just a little evidence that her particular adult schoolgirl was, in fact, naughty.
And we all know what happens to naughty schoolgirls!
In fact, an even more literal rendering of Hit Me, Baby, One More Time!
These were, by common consent, the best images to come out of the shoot. One of them would have been used on the poster, if it hadn’t been for a little professional complication. The teacher wielding the cane is played by Cambridge graduate and part-time actor Adam Baylis-West. And his day-job was in a sensitive field that made it imprudent to have him plastered all over Edinburgh menacing Milanka. What a pity!