understanding theatre as collaboration

This post is written by Lexi Earl, on her visit to The Bridge School in London.

When I visited The Bridge School (a special school for children with severe, profound and complex learning difficulties), I had an unexpected opportunity to accompany the 6th form to the theatre. On the day that I visited, they had been invited to attend a matinee performance of Ghost at the Lilian Baylis Studio. The production was put on in collaboration with people from the Daylight Daycentre and the Samuel Rhodes School – these were performers with various disabilities, acting on stage with others.

The performance was wonderful to watch. There were fantastic costumes. People came on holding colourful lights that then designated the space they danced in. The scene where Sam, the main male character, is shot and dying in the hospital (and realises he has become a ghost), was made much lighter by a fabulous dance routine of surgeons and nurses in scrubs. There was a live band on stage, who sometimes helped fill the silence if someone was late on or forgot their lines briefly.

During the performance I noticed the audience’s reactions to the different scenes, and different actors. Some of the performers were old students from The Bridge, and the young people I was with recognised them – telling me excitingly that so-and-so was on stage. They especially seemed to enjoy the music – clapping and singing along at various points. This theatre trip formed part of the students’ Arts Award activities.

The following week I returned to The Bridge to complete my 2-day visit. I spoke to Steven Mills, the music and drama facilitator, about the importance of such theatre experiences for their students, and the purpose of completing a qualification like Arts Award.

I think what is really nice about the Arts Award is that they get something at the end of it and it is something outside of the school and it is country wide so they are getting the same award as every other student who achieves it in the country. I think that is really good.

As part of the Arts Award, the students were interviewed about their trip to the theatre. They came up with the questions as a group and then individually answered them, giving their honest opinions about the experience. One of the girls summed it up perfectly when she commented: “the show was good because it was about life”.

Arts Award forms part of a much wider approach to a creative curriculum that teachers at The Bridge follow. I spoke to Ryan McClelland, the art teacher, who explained:

[We follow a] more creative curriculum which meets the very diverse needs of our kids. So it is very student led and we do have accreditation but it isn’t as stringent as GCSE or A Level and we decided to go with the Arts Award from the Arts Council because it is a little bit more flexible and interesting. […] We are finding a lot more sensory needs coming in [to school] and I suppose my practice, as an art teacher, has evolved to meet those needs. Over the last few years I’ve dispensed with the idea of an autonomous art work and I’ve been encouraging much more group work because I think that can encourage relationship building and it shifts the emphasis onto the staff as well and I expect the staff to treat the work as their work as well and whether that is supporting a child to make the work or them modelling something. I also think that the way the world is going I think this cult of the individual is going to be superseded and there will be much more of an emphasis on group work. Especially for kids with SEN because they are always going to need some sort of support in their lives and so we need to equip them with the skills to be flexible and to work with different people. We try to promote that through art, music and drama because they are the subjects that they access best.

The theatre production illustrated how this collaborative and group art might work between people of differing abilities. It gave the young people a chance to see similar people to themselves performing on a stage, and also provided me with the perfect opportunity to understand how Ryan’s ideas of collaborative and group work might work in practice.

investing in drama and performing arts

This post is written by Lexi Earl. 

During my trip to Uxbridge High School Amy Walker, the drama teacher, was keen to show me their new performing arts building . This new space was opened in September. It features a large drama studio with long blackout curtains that has a wall of moveable windows that fold out to become an outdoor theatre, complete with lighting and sound; and a wing for music students to practice and attend lessons in. The building is aptly named the Orsino Building and features his famous quote from Twelfth Night, “if music be the food of love, play on”.

It is an impressive space indoors, where drama students can rehearse their productions, but it is even more exciting when you imagine the outdoor theatre full of people enjoying a play. Amy explained that they intend to put on a production in the space in the summer term when (hopefully) the weather will be pleasant.

I thought it was quite surprising (but very inspiring) for a school to build a space actively promoting drama and performing arts, given all the negativity nationally that surrounds arts education. I asked the students in Year 12 and 13 their thoughts about how the school values art and it was clear that they also saw the theatre and new spaces as proof that the school supported their work.

I’ve been here since Year 7 and between Year 7 and 8 there were a whole load of new drama teachers who came in and they’re the ones who teach here now, and since then I’ve noticed that drama was taken a lot more seriously and it became a more fleshed out department. Drama is taken very seriously by the department and thereby by the rest of the school because the stuff that is put on in drama like school productions; I have people who don’t take drama and have never taken drama, say that was really good, that was really amazing.

It’s the facilities as well. When I was back in Year 7 you had two little classrooms and they weren’t really good for drama at all and this building opened, the activities studio and the learning zone upstairs; and we’ve now got the Orsino Building which of course has the outside stage and the massive room in there, as well with state of the art lighting systems. It shows how keen not just of course the drama department are, but the rest of the school are to help improve not so much the facilities but also the perception of performing arts. Because if they show that the school cares then certain students are going to show that they already care and they might be more keen to get into it.

I then asked them what they thought the perception of drama and performing arts was within the school.

It’s a lot more accepted than what it was, five or six years ago. I think like back in Year 7 and Year 8 when we used to go round and you didn’t want to admit it. It was just oh I do drama and I like acting, but you never admitted it, whereas now loads of people come up to me and they know I do performing arts. You can be more open if you like acting or enjoy performing arts, because the school shows they’re invested in that.

At A-level, pretty much any performance that we spend a long period of time on, we like people – our friends – to come in and watch it. That helps with the perception because people realise it’s not just hours of playing drama games or pretending to be a tree; all those stereotypes about drama, because wow!, you’ve been working on a performance for five months and it was really good. I definitely think that helps.

The school’s investment in a performing arts space has clearly sent a signal to the students about the value of drama and performing arts, and this in turn, has boosted their confidence and willingness to share their passion with others. It was reassuring to see this valuing of arts, at a time when so much of what we read about arts education is negative.

 

“we are such stuff as dreams are made of”

This post is written by Lexi Earl, on her trip to Canterbury High School in Kent.

Imagine, if you will, walking along a coastal path. The seagulls are calling above you. The sky is blue and the sun warms your back. The sea crashes nearby, giving you glimpses of blue, green, aquamarine. Then you turn a corner and there, in front of you is a woodland sprite. A small creature dressed all in black with a red and orange tutu around its waist. Then, hark!, a wigwam, from where emerges a child that reminds you wholly of a lost boy from Peter Pan. Then you stumble upon a small boat with a cloud above it. It could be the Swallow that took the children to the island. Another small child passes you in a dark cape, carrying a staff – a young Gandalf, perhaps. There are others in white with blue ribbons, some in silver dresses. What on earth is going on?

You could be mistaken for thinking you had fallen through a rabbit hole and landed in a wonder-never-land, had you come upon this scene. I certainly felt I had stumbled into another world, one filled with sprites and spirits, queens, dukes, and bears. But in fact, I was simply near the beach at Folkestone to see a production of The Tempest. This particular performance was put on by a group of local Kent primary and secondary schools, as part of a Royal Shakespeare Company sharing event.

Becky Huckle, of Canterbury High School, had invited me to come to the performance as I happened to be visiting the school in the same week. This was an event organized by Becky and Canterbury High as part of their role as a Lead Associate School in the RSC’s education programme, with support from the Marlowe Theatre.  Not only did they put on a version of The Tempest (involving 10 different schools and 10 different scenes) but they also organized workshops for students and teachers to participate in, ran rehearsals so the children could get a sense of the space on stage, and organized other productions for the children to watch. (The boat I thought might take us to the Swallows and Amazons’ island turned out to be its own stage, the cloud rained constantly upon the actor, who did his whole performance via mime).

The Tempest performance took place at the open-air amphitheatre on the coastal path. The half-moon stage was framed by the amphitheatre’s columns, the audience sat on raised seating, and was able to see ‘backstage’ because everything was open to the elements. There was grass underfoot, blue sky above and the occasional curious passer-by, who paused to watch.

Coastal amphitheatre

Each school was allocated a scene and was then given the opportunity to interpret and perform it however they wished. The whole play was performed in sequence, with schools appearing for their scene and then rejoining the audience afterwards. There were many scenes with multiple children playing the same character, other scenes where children switched roles, or echoed lines. There was clever use of ensemble so that more children could be involved in scenes with fewer characters. The children made use of very physical theatre, moving about the space in unison, using their bodies to depict the location (the sea, for example) or falling over to great comedic effect. There were clever sound effects – the sound of the wind created by spinning plastic tubes at high speed – and use of music – a flute playing or children singing. Behind us the sea crashed and swayed, transporting us to Prospero’s Island.

Becky Huckle explained that part of their choice of the amphitheatre was to give students the experience of a “non-traditional theatre location”. This choice of location really added to the atmosphere and joy of the production. One of the teachers I sat next to kept saying ‘that was brilliant’, after every scene. I have to agree. It was a truly magical experience.

 

 

 

 

beware the ides of March!

This post is written by Lexi Earl, on her trip to King Ethelbert School in Kent.

During my time at King Ethelbert School, near Margate in Kent, I got to observe a Year 7 English class. The class were studying Julius Caesar. The English Department had chosen Julius Caesar as the Year 7 Shakespeare text because they were also participating in a production of Julius Caesar at the Marlowe Theatre, as part of their work with the RSC.

The class I witnessed was focused on the scene where Caesar is murdered (Act 3, Scene 1). While the class moved their tables and chairs to the edges of the room, Loren Hooker, their class teacher, asked them to think about “what the soothsayer says to Julius Caesar” and “why this is important”. We then arranged ourselves in a circle and Loren asked the class what the soothsayer says. “He says, beware the ides of March”, answered a student. Loren asked when the ides of March are – March 15th and why this is important – because it is a prophecy. It foretells Caesar’s death. We then began a warm-up game.

Everyone gazes at the floor. As Loren counts to 3 we take steps forward. On 3, we all look up, trying to lock eyes with someone opposite and say clearly “beware the ides of March!” If you lock eyes with someone, both of you are out of the game and have to die ‘a dramatic death’. This game was a lot of fun. The children in class were very enthusiastic, belting out the line dramatically, and falling to the floor when they ‘died’. Loren varied the speed at which they said the lines, and the voices they used (there is much laughter when they have to speak as an old woman). Eventually she brings the game to a close and they reflect on the skills they have learnt – coordination, voice projection, eye contact.

The class then moves on to a Woosh! They continue sitting in their circle but now participate in a reenactment of Act 3 Scene 1 while their teacher narrates. Loren tells the class to pay attention to the status of their character – how would they hold themselves, what would their posture be like?

The teacher says there is a huge crowd cheering. She runs around the circle, pointing to a number of students as she does so. The students shout enthusiastically and raise their arms, some with fists clenched, pumping at the air or waving. Another student is chosen as Caesar – he walks past the crowd. The teacher calls freeze and the crowd become silent, frozen in their stance. She chooses a number of senators and a soothsayer (the girl comes to take her coat from the table). The soothsayer joins the crowd and the senators join Caesar in the middle. The soothsayer pulls her coat up over her face, so that it is like a witch’s cloak. The teacher explains that Caesar spots the soothsayer in the crowd and gestures them forward. The boy playing Caesar calls the girl-soothsayer forward with his hand. The teacher tells them the lines and they repeat them: “the ides of March are here” he says scornfully. “Aye Caesar, but not yet gone”, she replies. “What does this mean?” Loren asks the class. She explains that the soothsayer is warning that the day is not yet over.

The class continues in this manner. There is a funny moment when the teacher says to an enthusiastic student, “you’re not stabbing anyone unless you’re sensible!” She continues, “I realize that is an unusual thing for a teacher to say” as the class laugh. Finally, Caesar lies dead on the classroom floor. “Et tu, Brutus”, he whispers.

KES LH class

Once that scene is done, the class rewinds briefly to the beginning of the play and the soothsayer’s initial warning. The students form two rows down the centre of the class and one child volunteers to be Caesar. Loren explains he is going to walk between the lines. The lines are the crowd and will stand and cheer. Loren says she will walk up and down the lines and tap someone on the shoulder – that person is then the soothsayer and must get in front of Caesar and say to him “beware the ides of March”. Caesar begins his regal walk down the lines and the children cheer enthusiastically – they shout and cheer loudly, some jumping up and down saying “It’s Caesar! It’s Caesar!” The Caesar-child shakes hands with people in the crowd as he goes along. The teacher taps a girl and she moves in front of Caesar and says the line but Caesar just dismisses her, doesn’t even really see her. Loren asks the class to freeze and explains what happened – Caesar was so caught up in being Caesar he didn’t even see the soothsayer! They repeat the scene and Loren chooses a different girl who jumps boldly in front of Caesar and says “beware the ides of March”.

After this Loren asks the Caesar-child what it felt like walking up and down. “It’s like I’ve had a birthday or something and everyone is congratulating me on becoming 12 or something!” She then asks the class how they felt, being the crowd – “someone with all the power is in front of me. It’s like oh my god.”

The class clearly understood the status and power held by different characters in these scenes, and how these change over time in the play. The opportunity for reflection also encouraged them to vocalise how it felt to play different characters, further enhancing their understanding of the play.

 

 

 

 

 

 

seeing, observing, connecting

This post is written by Lexi Earl, on her trip to Royal Grammar School in Newcastle.

During my visit to Royal Grammar School in Newcastle, Christine Egan-Fowler (one of the art teachers) invited me to participate in a life drawing class. This is a class she puts on for any interested student, whether or not they are studying art. The class runs once a week, after school, between 4.15pm and 6pm. As Pat Thomson has written, those of us who do ethnography love to participate, as it can often generate new forms of understanding. But when you only have a few days in a school, opportunities to do so are rare. So, despite my nervousness and rusty drawing skills, I jumped at this chance.

Once school was finished, Christine arranged the tables in her class into a square, with space in the centre for the model to pose. The model sat on a table on some material and different fabrics, with her one hand placed in a tank of water by her side. Students moved around the room at first, looking at the pose from different angles and analyzing the changing light. Once everyone was settled, we performed a focusing exercise, dividing the body up by moving our pencil into different positions – horizontal, vertical, up, down. Christine advised that we might only want to do part of the post, and she warned us that with the changing westerly light in the room, there were “highlights being chased across the body”. She also told us to “look for the shadowy areas. There is quite complicated light from above, all the way around, reflected light on the water”. We began to draw (or paint, for those using oils). Music played quietly in the background, and there was the sound of pencils being sketched, and paint being swooshed and swished.

During the drawing process I started to think about how we learn to observe, learn to see things in particular ways. This might seem obvious, in a life drawing class, but it is less obvious when you think about it as a research skill. I spend a lot of my time observing in schools, often in classrooms but also in dining halls and outside. Learning to look is a skill that has to be honed and developed. It is guided by research questions and ideas as they develop, but it also relies on conversations, where you can talk about your ideas. These ideas then shape how and where you look, when you return to observe.

While I was drawing, and shading with graphite, I began to wonder about the transferable skills from life-drawing to researching. I was incredibly focused during the class, concentrating, looking and re-looking, tentatively shaping a shoulder, then looking again. Once I had the outline I started to look again, at the light, at the shadows. Research observation is similar. You look, you look again, you take notes. Then you look again.

The following day I spoke to Christine. We talked about her experiences at the Tate Summer School in 2016, and how this had shaped how she approached her teaching. During our conversation, she explained:

“No longer am I a teacher who goes into the classroom and expects everybody to be able to come out knowing a skill but I am giving them an experience and I want to see the students connecting that experience to something else. It is the connecting that is more important than the skill. In that way the students start asking the right questions and treating you in the right way: they treat people as means to bounce ideas off of and not as getting every skill they can. I think that is really good for them because they discover things for themselves and then they can teach other people. Quite often in school now I will say ‘I don’t know but I do know that so and so did that last week’. So we’ve got this kind of interchange going on”.

To a certain extent, I had done exactly this during the life-drawing class. I certainly did not suddenly become a maestro with the pencil. But I was able to take the experience and connect it to other experiences and ideas I had – does spending time in a life-drawing class make me a better researcher? Does it develop my observational skills?

There is a lot of debate at the moment, both in our society and in our schools, about the value, place and purpose of art. I wonder if more people had the same experience life-drawing as I did, using it as a stimulus for thinking about how I do my own work, whether we might not think differently about the purpose and place of art?

 

inspiring future arts careers

This post is written by Lexi Earl on her visit to St Ambrose Barlow RC High School in Salford.

In my conversation with Bernie Furey, the Assistant Head Teacher (Creativity and Research) at St Ambrose Barlow RC High School in Salford, she talked about the focus on giving students functional and useful art skills. This is to enable students to obtain jobs in the creative industries when they’ve finished studying. One of the ways the art teachers at St Ambrose do this is through developing a wide range of partnerships with creative organisations – from the Tate galleries to the Ideas Foundation to working with artists and design agencies.

The art department spends a lot of time organizing and taking their students to local galleries like Manchester Art Gallery and the Tate Liverpool so that students can see art on display and get ideas for their own work. These experiences have a long-term focus, extending the possibilities of what their students might aspire to be.

During our conversation, I asked Bernie if the department were conscious of the kinds of job markets that might exist when their students finished. 

Definitely and making sure that we are giving them those skills and we are working very closely with the digital industry in Manchester to make sure that our curriculum is fit for purpose.

One of the partnerships the department has is with McCann’s – a design agency that has offices in both London and New York City. In the weeks before my visit, the art department took a number of students from Year 10 and 6th form to New York City for 5 days. The packed schedule included a trip to the top of Rockefeller Center, the Empire State Building, Central Park and a show on Broadway as well as visits to MoMA, the Natural History Museum, and the Whitney.

The students spoke about their trip with enthusiasm:

Everything you could do in five days, we did.

[On the NYC galleries] They were all different I’d say. None of them were the same. In each one none of the art was the same. There was so much different art. So it was good for us to get ideas.

It was so big as well like. There were so many different types of art, to see them all, it was really good.

Some students also visited the McCann offices in NYC. One of the Year 12’s I spoke to there told me about her experience in the design agency:

I want to go into advertising and Ms. Furey has really helped me out with that. Because when we went to New York I went to visit McCann’s agency. […] We went to the 16th floor and they have the whole floor and it’s the creative side to it. They had different sections so we went round there. Then they were showing us how they create magazine covers and it was just really good to see how it’s all created. So they start off with a basic idea and then we moved on to how they edit it on Photoshop and then how they print it. They do loads of different prints to see which is best. It was just nice to see how it all comes together and how much work it actually takes to create something like that. It was just really good.

Rose Warner, one of the art teachers, explained about the importance of these kinds of experiences for their students.

It was great. The kids just loved it. […] We did a lot in five days and it was a really good trip and the kids get a lot from that for their sketchbooks. […] It’s an exhausting trip but it is brilliant because some of our kids haven’t even been out of Salford by the time they get to Year 10 and there were about four girls who had never flown before. That is a lot for them and it means to lot to them and they learn an awful lot from it even down to how to manage their own budget and money. […] I think for us it’s the chance for pupils to see us in a different way and a couple of years ago we took a girl who had completely switched off from art and when we took her to New York she returned a completely changed girl who wanted to get back to her art. We took a girl this year who is really quiet but creates beautiful art work but can’t talk about it and she came back with a much more confident side to her. I think it will help their confidence a lot.

Bernie and her team work to build these partnerships precisely so that their students are able to gain a lot of experiences whilst still at school. This, they hope, will help their students understand the wide range of job opportunities that exist, particularly in a creative hub like Manchester.

displaying and sharing art

This post is written by Lexi Earl, on her time at Welling School in Kent.

When I arrived at Welling School in Kent, I was immediately fascinated by the ‘mini gallery’ space in reception – a tall glass cube, filled with objects. It displayed work by Year 8 students, responding to work by American artist Judith Scott. These were vibrant, colourful balls that used thread and textiles to create new art from found objects. The wall next to this mini gallery was filled with posters advertising the school’s ‘alTURNERtive’ prize – a yearly art competition for students.

 

Welling is an art specialist school and there is a lot of opportunity to partake in art of various kinds, but what struck me in the first few moments was the clear importance of sharing and showing students’ work. In my few months on this project, I have noticed how students talk about sharing their work, and how comfort with sharing appears to develop over time – younger students tend to be more cautious about sharing their developing art works, whereas their older peers are sharing on social media and engaged in conversation with other young artists.

Students I spoke to clearly knew that their school valued the arts, their art in particular, and showcased this in various ways.

Art has always been very big in the school. I just think that it is appreciated.

They have an awards ceremony as well. The alTURNERtive prize they do that every year cause we have a gallery downstairs. And we have a lot of stuff around the room, like everyone’s work is displayed. Like last year, everyone’s final pieces will be up on the walls.

It’s one of the main things that attracted me to the school [the way it values art]. I used to go to [another school] and they’re into art as well but I thought that this was even more into art cause its what I want to go into so it felt like this was the right decision to come here.

When I asked how the school’s value of the arts made them feel they said:

It makes us want to do more big stuff and show it off, cause we know we can.

I feel less restricted cause you can make big stuff in this school.

One student explained about her experience in The alTURNERtive Prize:

So they choose a couple of people from Year 11, 12 and 13, art that they’ve done and they put it in the gallery and it’s like a show. Everyone comes in to watch it. And they choose an overall winner. […] It’s fun. It’s a good experience. You feel quite involved in everything and it feels a bit more real. And you feel like you get rewarded for the stuff you do, so it’s quite nice.

And what did everyone say when they came in and saw all the artwork?

It’s like not a community but like everyone’s joined together and everyone is like ‘oh, your work’s nice’, ‘and your work’s nice’ and you all give each other ideas. It’s a nice thing to do. It’s a good idea. It works.

Sharing art work at Welling was not only confined to formal gallery spaces or competitions. The teacher’s classrooms displayed student work, and the corridors of the art block were full of posters, art, photographs and notice boards showcasing recent plays or information on exhibitions students could visit.


At Welling I began to think about the role the school and teachers can play in creating spaces where students can share work in a gradual fashion – anonymously in the glass cube, with friends, family and other artists in the school gallery space, and eventually, on social media and in other public spaces. And through doing so, empower students to share their work with the world.