How to make a conversation

…..well not really one conversation but a whole raft of them – us to young people, young people to young people, young people with the world around them, performers to audience and young people and their parents and carers.

Last year Theatre in the Mill was commissioned by The Schools Linking Network to work with Titus Salt School and Grange Technology College in the creation of a performance project that would explore cross ethnic relations in the City of Bradford with reference to the political and humanitarian crisis in Gaza .

The Network was established after the publication of the Ouseley Report and it’s description of ‘elective apartheid’ in the city’s schools with the aim of allowing young people in the city to know and understand each other better.  There has been considerable work done in which the University of Bradford, with it’s specialisms in conflict resolution, has been to the forefront.

I was interested in this both as a process and as a subject having in a previous incarnation worked with young people (not in a school setting) about personal and political issues on pieces such as Just Before the Rain – For Peshkar Productions/Contact Theatre.  There is a thoughtful review of the piece here.

Angie Kottler of the SLN asked me if I would consider working with Ben Yeger on the project.  Ben is a fascinating and wonderfully talented man, a former paratrooper in the Israeli Defence Force, theatre maker (based in Sheffield) whose experiences of serving in the Lebanon conflict led him to join an organisation called Combatants for Peace, which brings together both Israeli and Palestinian former soldiers in an effort to forge greater understanding and to push forward the peace process.

Ben’s practice differs significantly from mine, having at it’s heart, I guess, a therapeutic intention.  I was very interested to push myself and my own making process so I was more than happy to have Ben on board.

Having sat down and discussed the project at length with the SLN, Ben and teachers from both schools we set ourselves two main goals: To explore ideas, knowledge and experiences of conflict in relation to self, family and friends, society, the world and war. To stretch the students understanding of contemporary theatre practice as a means of developing a broader vocabulary of self expression.

It was also decided that the teachers from both schools would be actively engaged in the making process.  They were:

Heather Graham, Lauren Bowley and Kate Metcalfe from Titus Salt School and Dave McKay from Grange Technology College.

In addition we have had significant input into the shape and conceptualization of the project from Professor Donna Pankhurst,  Senior Lecturer in Peace Studies at the University of Bradford and Chair of the Governors at Grange Technology College.
The pupils we worked with were selected for a variety of reasons by the schools themselves and came from across the age ranges from 11 to 18 – a vertical grouping out of choice.  We only asked that the pupils had an existing interest (but not necessarily experience) in theatre, had something to say and were not compelled to attend.

Specific tools introduced we introduced to the group:
• Improvisation skills- accept and develop, trust your own ideas and spontaneity.
• Space and body awareness
• Listening skills
• Working as group
• Still image (sculpt) making
• Movement qualities (elements as a reference for movement)
• Instant story making/telling
• Complex and overlapping narrative structures

We were asked to review the process mid way through.  This is what we wrote:

Comment from the Artists
“The process so far has been very rich and the students are showing a very positive and enthusiastic attitude to the work. It seems that they enjoy the games we have been introducing and that they are also interested in finding creative ways to express their ideas and understanding around conflict and resolving it. There is a wide spectrum of abilities present in the group and this means that the output is varied in content and style. This will probably mean that the project will be able to remain diverse and therefore interesting. The students have responded well to using sculpts as a means of showing the ideas they come up with and when asked to develop these ideas they have come up with some very rich material. It feels that we are on the right track and when we have a full day together we will be able to bring together some of the strands we have been exploring so far. It feels very important to find the right balance between the y peoples personal response to the word conflict and a wider view point- so that we can reach beyond just the young people’s experience so to enrich the overall learning.  In terms of form- I feel that it is important to continue to build the Young people’s capacity and knowledge of the different ways they can express narrative, feelings, thoughts, information about the subject matter.  We have found a bit of structure in terms of 4 areas of conflict-
 1. Personal/internal
2. Familial conflict
3. Societal conflict
4.World conflict/war

First Understand yourself.  Secondly understand your surroundings.  Thirdly explore the world with a deeper understanding.

Comments from Staff
I don’t think I’d be stepping out of line to suggest that we’ve all
found the project to be a high energy, creative and overwhelmingly
positive experience so far. There seems to be a real developing
friendship between the kids of both schools and I personally think this
has been aided tremendously by the vertical nature of the grouping. This
has worked so much better than last year’s project with Salt’s where all
the students were Year Group peers.”
Dave McKay, Grange Technology College

“The core of students still working on the project are all working well as a group – friendships are forming between the schools: it would be difficult now to spot who belongs to which school because of the way they are mixing. In fact one of our girls now constantly hangs out with the Grange girls when they are together. I am constantly impressed with the way the students are working – some of the ‘scenes’ they did on Monday made the hairs stand up on the back on my neck, as they were so well ‘acted’. “ Heather Graham, The Titus Salt School

The end, performed, result ‘In My Life’ was performed here at Theatre in the Mill.  The young people talked really profoundly about their lives, the pressures and the worlds that surround them.  They created a performance that moved it’s watchers to tears and started a myriad of further conversations about how both the methodologies and the practice could continue.  There was a universal consensus that these young people had made something that would significantly effect their lives, their behaviours and attitudes as citizens, we saw our investment pay off. And despite the recent news about cuts in arts funding it will continue, we have the wherewithal to ensure that it does.  We believe in investment  you see.

It worries and saddens me, though, that as a small organisation we can only do so much and that there are many, many, young people out there who, through the cuts announced in the Comprehensive Spending Review, will be denied these opportunities.