The Theatre Company Blah Blah Blah!?s ?Silas Marner? project is a four-part programme of interactive theatre at the heart of Richmond Hill Achievement Zone?s broad-reaching initiative to raise standards in one of the most deprived areas of Leeds, writes Barnaby King.
For a company practising theatre-in-education (T-I-E ) for some fifteen years, it represents a unique opportunity to work strategically within an innovative structure, seeking to place creativity and the arts at the very centre of every child?s learning experience.
The term ?education? has metamorphosed in recent years, and nowadays we talk more about lifelong learning, core skills, soft skills, training, accreditation and creativity. It?s a realisation that education needs to tailor itself to an individual?s needs, and access all our levels, including the emotional and physical as well as the intellectual. But although this new humanised concept of education has permeated our society in many ways, there is still a question over whether it has filtered back into schools. And this is what the Richmond Hill Achievement Zone is trying to rectify with the Silas Marner project, by using theatre and drama as a stimulus for raising achievement across all curriculum areas.
We have developed an unusual blend of T-I-E and ?in-role? drama. A previous programme ?We Are One Tribe? aimed to raise self-esteem and group working skills through a drama based around a Celtic village during the Roman occupation. The programme was never directly seen as a support to the curriculum, but in actuality teachers often picked up on what we were doing and used the content to support classroom teaching. Silas Marner has allowed us to focus even more on this element, due to the innovative structure created by Achievement Zone coordinator, Brian Higginson, with the help of additional funding from Leeds Artists in Schools. Placing the Silas Marner experience at the start of a whole year?s work for Year 6 pupils in six low achieving schools, he has developed a comprehensive package of spin-off lessons, resource materials and additional artist visits, which all use Silas Marner as their starting point. Supply cover has allowed teachers to attend planning meetings, to share work, and to visit each other?s lessons.
As a theatre company, the structure has liberated us to focus on the imaginative, artistic side of the story, in the sure knowledge that every educational opportunity will be picked up on at a later stage. Our role can be that of the pure artist: to raise questions, to create pictures, to challenge our audience to think and behave differently. We deliver the story over four two-hour sessions. On some levels it is a participatory performance, with a set and costumes and props, chosen for visual effectiveness or metaphorical resonance. At one point in the drama, for example, we discover a skeleton in the stone pits. We talk about the notion of having a ?skeleton in your cupboard?, and later in the story we use this image to talk about characters who have things to hide. We make decisions about whether it is best to reveal those skeletons (secrets) or bury them forever. For children whose backgrounds are often riddled with unspoken-of events and histories, the decision is not taken lightly.
Children learn very quickly the range of conventions which allow us to step in and out of role, switch character, suddenly move into teacher mode, questioning and pushing, or open ourselves up for questioning by them. The story is complex and the sessions demanding. But teachers and observers alike are impressed by how the children respond to this challenge, seeming to go far beyond what they can express in a normal classroom situation, both intellectually and emotionally, and their behaviour is often markedly better.
Throughout the history of T-I-E, the exact relationship between the education system and the theatre company has often been a source of contention. Who determines the content and the outcomes? The relationship with funders is equally problematic, and T-I-E companies often find themselves doing the ?drugs? play or the ?bullying? play, simply because the money is there to do it. The Silas Marner project through the EAZ scheme takes arts in education to a new level, for it allows the artistic product to stand alone and to be investigated as a story, but it also uses the process as a tool for learning to stimulate children?s own creativity. It is a holistic approach, allowing the theatrical experience to filter into all areas of development, rather than being sectioned off and treated as something different or special.
Barnaby King is Associate Director of the Theatre Company Blah Blah Blah! t: 0113 224 3171; e: firstname.lastname@example.org