Play and Replay Phase Two 2011 was funded by Plymouth City Council. A partnership project using Playback Theatre to explore issues of identity, community and cultural diversity.
Brook Green Centre for Learning is a special school for up to 100 young people from year 7 to year 11. The pupils are characterised by having found it difficult in a conventional mainstream educational environment. They are from a dispersed geography covering the whole of Plymouth and surrounding areas.
Mirror Mirror is a Playback Theatre Co which has experience of working in a range of statutory and non statutory settings with a particular specialism in supporting disempowered groups with consultation. MM has worked on a longitudinal project with a mainstream secondary school – The Play and Replay Project – in Spring/Summer 2009 to support the development of Playback Theatre skills, to see whether this theatre form could be used by young people to explore issues that affect their lives.
A member of MM had done an arts project with Brook Green in July 2010 and had recognised that the Young People had a range of communication deficits, however their was a strong commitment by staff to pastoral support and a recognition that the school embraced creative approaches to developing their pupils. This combination of factors lead the company to believe that Brook Green would be a receptive partner in delivering a project with funding from Plymouth City Council.
Members of the company met with staff from Brook Green to discuss the scope of the project and consider how best to deliver. From the beginning staff were on board and active in creating the necessary conditions for the project to succeed based on MM previous experience and recommendations. Staff developed a draft of the 6 week project with a theme for each week. This was then discussed and further refined before project commencement.
As a consequence of these discussions it was decided that the sessions would be delivered during the ‘platforms module’. This involved the school collapsing the curriculum for Years 7 to 9 each Tuesday for a 6 week period. The ‘platforms’ were designed as a way of using arts and creative media to investigate a topic or issue in more depth. MM would offer a workshop and performance for the whole group of 55 children in week 1, after which MM would work with a smaller selected group of 18 to 20 for the next 4 weeks and finish on week 6 with the whole group again.
The two key recommendations were;
To work with a mixed year group, this recommendation was based on experience of working in a mainstream school with a group of pupils exclusively in Yr 9. MM had found that with a well embedded peer group with strongly established hierarchies often inhibited open sharing for fear of censure from higher status pupils.
MM also wanted an opportunity to workshop with the young people and introduce other creative media to stimulate insight into the issues. This determined the length of the sessions.
A specific theme had been selected by the staff who were running the platforms. MM considered the themes and useful questions for the conductor to ask.
(Note; the conductor’s role in the company is to mediate a conversation between the audience and performers, the conductor engages a member of the audience in a sort of informal conversation, the actors listen along with the rest of the audience, the conductor decides when enough has been revealed and then ask the performers to recreate the story using a number of different forms that are specific to Playback Theatre.)
A pre performance workshop was devised to support the ‘making explicit’ of the theme. The workshop also existed to assess the skills of the young people as performers and consider the extent to which they could possibly ‘Playback’ to their peers.
The school sports hall was used for the sessions, despite being large with a high roof, it was a reasonable acoustic space, warm, bright and only recently built. It felt like a positive space that the pupils liked being in.
Session 1, which included the whole of years 7, 8 and 9, ran from 9 am to 12.15pm. Sessions 2, 3, 4 and 5 ran from 11am to 12.35pm. These sessions involved a short warm up including drama games, which aimed to build openness and familiarity, after which the performance space was created. This involved putting out mats for young people and staff to sit on. There was always a minimum of three staff present and in addition two student teachers in the workshops, and at least two staff members attended every performance, one of whom filmed all 6 sessions.
We encouraged staff to sit with the children rather than behind them. The simple Playback Theatre set follows a standard convention with a range of coloured cloths draped on a frame to the left as the audience view, three central chairs for the actors to sit on and use as props, a range of musical instruments to the right, and two chairs just in front of the cloth, one for the conductor and one for the ‘teller’. This convention changed after week three with the addition of a second ‘tellers’ chair. Some pupils preferred to come to tell a story with a friend to support them.
Each performance began with the conductors and actors introducing their name, then the actors shared a short story from their life which hinted toward the theme for that week. Each performance lasted between 50 minutes and an hour and typically contained between 8 and 10 stories.
After each performance there was an informal debrief with the two key staff members. The company would then have a debrief to discuss what worked well and what we needed to be aware of to ensure the valuing of the pupils and consider any risk management in terms of disclosure of sensitive stories during the performance.
All of the performances were filmed, initially with the camera fixed on the actors, then later on capturing the responses of the young people.
For the last session which was longer, a group sculpture activity was employed to assist exploration of the platform theme. This involved providing a range of materials and scrap that was easily worked into large scale sculptural forms. These would be used by the smaller group as a way of introducing the theme to the rest of the larger group who rejoined for the performance.
The sculpture session was planned as a way of moving the smaller group away from their own very personal stories ready for the bigger group to be reincorporated into the process.
From the 1st week it was evident that the young people were very engaged by the performance, which required them telling stories that were spontaneously improvised by the performers. The stories were about their everyday experiences.
It was clear that the performance held enough intrinsic value and interest that the company decided not to focus heavily on trying to build the young peoples theatre skills.
It was evident by the nature of the stories that trust built each week. At the end of week three a particularly powerful story based on a poem that one of the students had produced indicated that the young people were prepared to share some of their most challenging life circumstances. The pupils were feeding back that it felt good to know certain facts about their peers as this helped to contextualise things for them – they understood each other better.
One of the key staff members was also priming the pupils during the week and this encouraged the sharing of other powerful testimonies. Whilst this provided strong material it didn’t necessarily allow the Playback Theatre process and the skill of the conductor to draw the stories out in a way that the actors would be more familiar with, this created ‘risks’ around properly honouring and valuing the teller.
It was felt that the intention was very positive and demonstrated that staff had a great deal of trust and openness to the process, this became an important point of learning for the company and will be incorporated into future recommendations concerning similar work.
The last session which saw the reintroduction of the rest of the platform group managed to maintain a high level of intimacy. The creation of the sculptures also acted as a form of closure for the smaller group before being reincorporated into the whole. The sculptural work together with the small group was openly acknowledged before the performance.