For a recent production, Little Earthquake passed the reins over to 100 primary school children. Philip Holyman describes the events as they unfolded.

Production shot from The Boy who became a Beetle
A scene from ‘The Boy who became a Beetle’

Adrian Burrows

Audiences are very important to Little Earthquake, the theatre company I run with Gareth Nicholls. We do not exist without them. This goes beyond financial considerations, as we have always believed that an audience is an audience all the time, not just when they attend a performance. Sharing a finished production is not the only (and not necessarily the best) way to build meaningful relationships with people.

Last September, we started working on the Young Producers project, in partnership with Black Country Touring, Arts Connect West Midlands and the Arena Theatre in Wolverhampton, with significant support from Arts Council England. We have given almost 100 children (from years 4, 5 and 6 in five Black Country schools) the opportunity to be centrally involved in the development and creation of a new production for young people and their families.

Ripples of excitement passed through the house as individual children recognised their specific contributions

In part, we wanted to make a show which was not a straightforward adaptation of an existing children’s book or film. The market is saturated with such work already and we were keen to offer something different. Mostly, though, we were interested in making a new production with early and sustained input from its eventual target consumers. Who better to help us make work which would appeal to young people than a big group of young people? We pitched three ideas for as-yet-unmade shows to each group in practical workshops that echo our usual process for exploring new material. Every Young Producer voted in secret  in our mobile polling station for the show they wanted us to make. Finally, the eight core producers sat around a boardroom table, with us and their teachers, and made the final decision. No adult ever got to cast a vote.

The show they chose is The Boy who became a Beetle, freely inspired by Kafka’s Metamorphosis. The Young Producers shared and refined ideas for characters, events and narrative structures with me in my capacity as the writer. They helped to recruit Susannah Henry, the designer, and Luke Thomas, the composer, from a field of 120 international applicants, and worked with them on how the show should look and sound. They worked with Gareth Courage, our graphic designer, to create bespoke poster campaigns for the performances at their schools, and with Natalie Kidman from Black Country Touring on the marketing, box office, front of house and stage management of those events during the pilot tour.

Initially, the Young Producers were suspicious of how much decision-making power we would actually give them. From the outset, we said that there was no such thing as a bad or stupid idea. We resolved to take every suggestion on board and never to dismiss anything that a Young Producer offered. Many of their suggestions were calculated to test the limits of that policy, or by extension, the tolerance of the teachers in the room with us.

The voting process changed everything. When the Young Producers saw professional artists absorbing and embracing their ideas, their sense of ownership and investment increased massively. Each child responded to different aspects of the process: many of those who switched off during the story generation sessions were suddenly galvanised by the hands-on business of drawing props, creating posters and composing music. None of us will ever forget the uncontainable excitement of one Young Producer during the typography session. He subsequently produced an iconic beetle boy image which found its way into multiple elements of the production, down to the fabric from which the main character’s pyjamas were made.

We also discovered early on that the Young Producers’ frames of reference were literal ones. Their engagement with virtual culture is profound and sophisticated and their attendant expectations of what can be realised on a screen are limitless, but their expectations of what could be achieved live in the same physical space as them were very low. The ambitious visions they articulated often seemed to be accompanied by a sense that we would never get close to capturing them.

It was satisfying to hear that the resultant production significantly exceeded their expectations. In June, the Young Producers and production partners came together for a gala premiere with red carpet and paparazzi, VIP passes and cupcakes. Rarely has a first performance taken place for a more engaged set of stakeholders. Ripples of excitement passed through the house as individual children recognised their specific contributions. Gratifyingly for us, many of the Young Producers (and their teachers) said afterwards that the show was bigger, funnier and better than they ever thought it would be.

This project was not a surreptitious vehicle for us to make a show our way while masquerading as an opportunity to empower our young participants. Some of our partner schools had already had their fingers burned on projects with arts organisations who promised to give their pupils a level of agency which was ultimately taken away from them. We promised them that this would be a true collaboration and we meant it.

Last autumn, when the place of cultural activity within the education system already looked so precarious, a year-long partnership between artists and schools might have seemed like an expensive indulgence. Now, faced with four groups of children who have been given a real taste of their own creative capacity, and who have mobilised their communities to support live theatre on their own doorstep, work like this has never felt more vital.

Philip Holyman is Co-Director of Little Earthquake.

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Photo of Philip Holyman