Not many know that Oxford has some of the worst rates of child literacy in the country. Louise Chantal describes how a playwriting programmes is making a difference.
Did you know that parts of Oxford have some of the worst rates of child literacy (and poverty) in the country? There are primary schools within a mile of Christ Church where they are struggling to teach basic English. Children in Oxford go on to achieve some of the poorest GCSE results in the UK. I doubt very many of the 7 million visitors to the city every year know this.
At my interview for Oxford Playhouse, I said that a priority would be to expand the already successful artist development programme to include a writers’ programme to support all ages and types of writing.
The festival’s celebration of young, and even younger talent, is an old-fashioned bringing together of people
Hence, through our Primary Playmaker programme we have delivered a year-long series of 40 playwriting workshops for Key Stage 2 pupils in five local primary schools, with each pupil writing a ten-minute play. An inspiring team led by Renata Allen encouraged them with drama games and improvisation, leading to the development of storyboards and fully written plays.
The focus was writing for the stage and finding new voices. So what could be more exciting, and a sign of a thriving industry, than hundreds of new plays written by young people aged 9 to 25? Nearly 200 mini-plays were shared within school, and 12 were performed on our main stage by professional actors as part of our recent Young Players Festival.
Two very fine children’s authors, illustrator Korky Paul and CBeebies’ Cerrie Burnell, were on hand to give out certificates to the selected playwrights. The highlight of the festival was the children’s faces as they saw their work come to life on stage, watched by their families and classmates.
All the team was involved in making the building as welcoming, accessible and fun as possible. Our local cultural and educational partners were invited, and we hope that next year’s Young Players Festival will be one of the main events in the first year of the new, countywide Creative Education Partnership, which Oxford City Council and Arts Council England are leading.
Oxford Playhouse has a long history of working with young people to bring theatre into their lives. We work with 15,000 children a year, both in and out of schools through our Playhouse Plays Out programme for work in unusual spaces, and more and more through digital and online projects.
Yet the festival’s celebration of young, and even younger talent, is an old-fashioned bringing together of people, ideas, artists and audiences. It’s the exact opposite of the virtual, limitless but solitary world we all increasingly inhabit. It is a shared experience which we hope hundreds of children will enjoy for many years to come.
Louise Chantal is Chief Executive of Oxford Playhouse.