Open Doors Outreach 2017

Post written by: Erin Walcon

SONY DSC

We’ve just completed our first year of our Arts Council-funded project Stepping Stones, which will continue until April 2018. It’s been such a joyful year, full of buzzing activity in Torbay for children and young people… but I think my favourite success story from this first year has been the response to our Open Doors outreach programme.

DSC07764.JPG

As I’ve written about before, schools relationships have been a long slow process of bridge-building in Torbay.

DSC08121.JPG

With this Arts Council funding, we feel like there’s been a big breakthrough. Open Doors is a consistent, reliable offer which schools are learning to trust. This year has included primary outreach and secondary outreach. From January to March 2017, we worked with 760 students, across 18 schools, delivering 30 workshops and 2 large-scale platform events. It was a very busy three months.

DSC09640.JPG

This meant going to schools we’d never visited before, as well as returning to some committed partners. Applied Theatre students from the University of Exeter were invaluable in delivering secondary devising workshops alongside professional artist mentors.

DSC08544.JPG

With their help, we ran a platform event in late February with the Exeter Northcott Theatre, where a diverse array of secondary students from 10 different schools across Devon and Torbay came together to perform their original work on a professional stage.

DSC08400.JPG

Watching a young person perform their own story on a professional stage for the first time? It is like watching a fire be lit, right in front of your eyes.

DSC08123.JPG

The really important thing about the platform event was that it wasn’t a competition. It’s an open free platform which any school can engage with – no matter what resources or staffing they have in their drama department. The story is the same across all the schools visit… arts education budgets are shrinking. It’s getting harder to resist government initiatives which are emphasising test results and diminishing arts programmes. Mandates like the new EBACC are discouraging students from taking theatre, music and dance at GCSE and A-level. Drama programmes are losing staff and the positions are not being rehired. We have to get smarter about how we fight.

SONY DSC

Because this is worth fighting for.

DSC07964.JPG

 

Taking Shape

Post written by: Erin Walcon

The spring festival has just finished, and we managed to draw a collective breath, and then, post-breath, we’re leaping into the Summer Term. We’re mid-swan-dive. And while we’re careering through the air into our next adventure, I thought it would be nice to reflect for a minute. To celebrate, to revel.

SONY DSC

DSC_0020

 

Because this festival we run, it takes a lot of work. It’s a hefty thing to get rolling, and this season, for the first time, we felt like we had the right size team all pushing the thing together.

SONY DSC

DSC_2073

There is a special joy in collaborative working. Where you know that if you don’t know the answer, someone in the room will. In this collaboration, we are stronger together.

DSC_2115

Over the last four years in Torbay, this team has assembled gently, organically, slowly. In the best sense, it is a web of people who want to make things better. And what I valued the most from this last season, was seeing the diverse strengths that each person brought.

SONY DSCSONY DSC

We’ve already begun planning for Autumn… our next festival will be from 1-5 November, and will feature three beautiful shows from Battersea Arts Centre, as well as a local Scratch night and several SW-based companies featuring new work.

We can’t wait… but there’s much to be done this Summer Term. We are in the very first stages of assembling the team of young people who will be writing an original musical with Doorstep Youth Theatre, working together with the Palace Theatre on programming, and visioning for a lantern procession later this year.

The thing with a strong team is… it gives everyone the energy to do the work with enthusiasm, energy and vigour. It revitalizes and feeds. It makes you feel a part of something important. Something vital.

We all make the story happen.

Invoking & Accepting

Post written by: Erin Walcon

On Sunday 2 April 2017, I attended the evening performance of Invoking 50 Articles, an original piece by the Trio of Men in collaboration with the Choral Engineers, a community choir quite unlike any you’ve ever encountered before.

SONY DSC

The show was inspired by the events surrounding Brexit, but the piece itself was decidedly apolitical, boldly steering away from divisive and polarising debate, and instead encouraging us to look at the triangle for comfort and security. Slightly tongue-in-cheek, but also slightly serious, I think?

SONY DSC

What was thrilling to me about watching this piece is the awareness of how far we’ve come in Torbay over the last 4 years.

SONY DSC

When we began the Doorstep work here, back in 2013, I remember attending a meeting at Battersea Arts Centre where I said ‘I’m not sure we’ll be able to showcase original non-scripted performance work by adults in Torbay within the life of this project. We will try, but I’m not sure the landscape is ready for it yet.’

How pleased I am to be proven wrong.

SONY DSC

Under the careful producer eye of Mair George, and with the artistic leadership of Hugh Nankivell and Steve Sowden, this piece of theatre (or music?) (a performed concert?) (live art?) (choir?) filled the beautiful Spanish Barn at Torre Abbey with the voices of the Choral Engineers, singing an original score about the ambiguity in which we all seem to be living.

SONY DSC

As ever, with Hugh and Steve’s work, the music was lavish, lush and layered, with a sense of sharp intellectualism made juicily palatable through a wry sense of humour.  I laughed a lot – at the video introducing the ‘comforting’ triangle especially, and I found myself close to tears at the end, as the choir finally left, singing ‘We’re leaving.’ Only a few days after Theresa May really had invoked Article 50, this final exit and the subsequently empty stage gave me a lump in my throat. Absence, and emptiness finished the piece.

SONY DSC

There was something strangely right about the piece being invoked in the Spanish Barn – the stone walls and eerily echoing interior felt like a fitting space for this ritual.

SONY DSCSONY DSCSONY DSC

As I was leaving, I thought about why I felt sad. It wasn’t a wrenching sadness – but the kind of sadness you feel after a funeral. It was as if I was somehow making my peace with the fact that this reality is happening. (Perhaps my denial powers are strong?)

There was a wistfulness to the work, and a sensitive touch which left it open for all of the audience to access, regardless of their political stance. The word ‘Brexit’ was only invoked once at the very beginning, and the choir wore orange post-its with an X or an O on them, gently hinting at their vote, but never explicitly outing their individual politics.

The stacking of individual articles upon museum-style plinths began the piece, and at various points we as the audience were invited to engage, by holding a hand or being given a gift.

The warmth and acceptance, the open invitation, the gentle ritualism of the piece was very special, and I left it feeling as if these spaces are badly needed – space to sit, together, and make sense of the chaotic world which seems to be spiraling so quickly at the moment.

Perhaps it was the music, or the stone walls, but it felt a bit like going to church. Only a very odd church, where a triangle is mopped onto the stone floor every few minutes, and where a dog is inexplicably included in the service. Perhaps it’s a hunger in me for rituals – for gatherings of people who need to make meaning together, who need a breathing space, and the comfort of common acts together… the holding of hands, the giving of jackets, the singing. Above all, the singing.

 

 

Up & Away

Post written by: Erin Walcon

Last night at the Palace Theatre in Paignton, we brought all our Doorstep groups together for the first time, in an enormous platform event called Up and Away. This was a big stepping stone achieved – made possible through our funding from Arts Council England and Esmee Fairbairn Foundation.

Throughout this spring term, all our groups have been devising and creating original performances, inspired by the theme of Neverland. On Friday 31 March 2017, they all came together to share their stories, their dances, their songs and their laughter.

Orchestrating a platform event for 100 performers aged 4 to 21 is no simple task, but thanks to a huge and hardworking collaborative team, it was joyful.

There were children up there who had never been on a stage before. The best moments were the unexpected accidental ones – where children showed us that they are the ultimate improvisers.

It was a joy to watch the older participants take care of the little ones – both backstage and artistically – helping them to fly.

In the four years that we’ve been doing this work in Torbay, we’ve seen children’s confidence bloom and blossom, their understanding of their own power grow. As one boy said last night, ‘I’m bigger when I’m on stage.’

An enormous and heartfelt thank you to everyone who made last night’s event possible. We can’t think of a better way to launch the spring Doorstep Theatre festival. Up and away we go!

Actually With Children: a small rant

Post written by: Erin Walcon

Back in January, the Doorstep team  went up to a symposium in Leeds called ‘With Children’. We took a van, and packed it full – 3 Co-Directors (Erin, Meg and Jade) plus 3 young people (James, Izzy and Ashley) plus one parent helper (Dan).

It was a long van ride up north, which we filled mostly with practising old songs from Grit with Izzy’s ukulele and trying to tot up statistics for our impending (very scary and stressful) NPO application which was due in 2 days time. We used mobile phones as torches to tally up numbers of participants from the last 3 years and figured out how many community venues we’ve worked with. We realised, over chicken-scratched tallies in Ashley’s notebook that our reach was infinitely bigger than we thought it was. We relayed our statistics over several dozen text messages to the amazing Nat Palin who would spin them into magical grant-writing language and then, 4.5 hours into the road trip, we shifted from working on maths to working harmonies.

At last, blurry and bleary and happy to arrive, we pulled into Leeds city centre, and took turns pretending to be the Sat Nav voice for Dan to find our B&B.

The symposium itself was fascinating. Full of academic scholars – really lovely spiderweb minds who are reading capital-T Theory and thinking deeply. It was also attended by lots of children of academics and practitioners – kids who were not phased by spending a Saturday at an academic conference. As with all good conferences, there was some cognitive dissonance – some good and useful tensions which rubbed up against key ethical questions… like who has the power in the room when children are working alongside adults? How does that power manifest? Who gets to make the artistic decisions?

And for me, the lingering question was… why do practitioners who specialise in work WITH young people not write more about the nuanced balance & ethics of what they do in the artistic process? I’m still chewing over that one.

We were all struck by the un-examined privilege that we saw enacted at the conference – we were haunted the fact that many of the children we work with on a weekly basis in Torbay have never been on a university campus, may never have been outside of Torbay. The fact that much of the artistic practice being described was for children of a certain status, socio-economic position and who hold social capital based purely on family circumstances.

In my PhD, I critiqued the notion of seeing ‘children’ or ‘young people’ or ‘youth’ as a generic demographic. Children are subject to the same differences in race and class and status and privilege as adults. To talk about how children engage with the artistic process as a general subject inherently ignores the fact that many children struggle to access arts opportunities AT ALL. Access to the arts, to being an artist, to high-quality process, to spaces and places where it is safe to experiment and explore artistic expression… these are privileges, not rights. We see this deficit on a daily basis in our work in Torbay, and it troubled us that this wasn’t a topic discussed at the symposium. To us, this is important.

Anyway, we presented our Grit songs and some informal thoughts about the Doorstep Arts approach, and listened to several academic papers which both troubled and intrigued us.

We had to leave early to do the long drive home, and we piled back into the faithful van and spent the first couple hours ranting over the various moments which had outraged our critical response. Ashley, Izzy and James were passionate and articulate about which elements of the conference had ignited their sense of injustice, and it made for a really fascinating debate. After several hours, we resorted to singing songs together in classic road trip fashion, and by the final hour of the drive, giddy with exhaustion and road trip euphoria, we sleepily told stories that we’d never heard before. It was a very full 32 hours, and I’m not sorry that we went.

But here’s the thing that’s been niggling at me this week.

There’s been a call for papers following on from the conference. For a special edition of the journal Performance Studies. And I’ve had best intentions of submitting a proposal to talk about some of the above subjects, and we even recorded a live conversation with Meg and Jade and myself and two young people, Hollie and Al. The conversation transcript is all about how power manifests in the rehearsal space. I thought about submitting that transcript as a submission too.

But whenever I would look back at the call for papers, I would feel troubled. The desire for ontological critique, for a theoretical scouring of the ways in which children are ‘seen’ as part of performance – this doesn’t interest me. Much of the academic questions being framed for the special issue seem to be theorising children’s role in society, to be deeply exploring the Theory of watching children in performance.

To be blunt, I’m just not interested in that.

I’m interested in what happened for Izzy and Ashley and James as we drove up to Leeds and back. I’m interested in the fireworks in the brain that happened for all of us as our critical indignation was ignited. I’m interested in living with the tensions and then…

APPLYING THEM TO PRACTICE.

Because as my fingertips have hovered over the keys to type the proposal this week, each time, I’ve stopped myself from writing it. I’ve stopped myself from translating these messy half-formed questions into Theory lacework language. Because I want it to be raw and doughy and half-formed.

And I don’t want these thoughts in an elite scholarly journal. I want it here, in real language, in a blog post that EVERYONE can read, regardless of whether they’ve been to university or have access to formal academic journals.

And many times this week, I’ve walked away from my computer to throw a bag over my shoulder and go to the Real Rehearsal Room, where the art is Really Happening with actual children. Actual artists. Adults and children both.

What does interest me, is what is happening with our Doorstep groups throughout the week, every week, in Torbay. I’m interested in the collaborative exploration in the studio, with the groups of diverse young people from all kinds of backgrounds and lived experiences that we work with. I’m interested in how they are seeing the world and their place in it, and how they articulate that through their art-making. I’m interested in how we together keep pushing the limits of our empathy, our critical understanding, our vision for what is possible.

So, back to my question about practitioners who specialise in this work, and why they don’t write about it?

Maybe it’s because we’re too busy actually doing the work?

Or maybe it’s because we don’t have the luxury of paid writing/research time?

Or maybe it’s because the language of theoretical academic journals is not the right forum to explore the complexities – the wonderful dissonance and harmonies – of working with children in the artistic space.

Maybe we need to talk about it on our own terms, in our own way.

Maybe this is how we begin.

 

Work Experience

Post written by: Hollie Uzzell and Aldwyn Abbott, work experience students

At Doorstep HQ, we absolutely love hosting work experience students. It’s one of the highlights of our year. In February, we welcomed Hollie and Al in for a week, to become part of the core Doorstep team. They were both absolutely brilliant – enthusiastic, up for anything, hard working, and a total pleasure to have round. We asked them to write up their week for us, and the following is their description, in their own words:

On Monday we did marketing for the upcoming festival. This gave us a real insight as to what Doorstep has to do behind the scenes.

On Tuesday we went to Exeter University with Erin and watched the students’ Theatre-in-Education pieces and gave them feedback. Then, in the evening, we helped Polly with the DAS groups which was so much fun.

On Wednesday, we distributed flyers and posters to local shops to advertise the upcoming festival. In the evening, we helped Polly with the DAS sessions which was great like Tuesday.

On Thursday, we had a creative task to do at home for Out of the Woods. We got a lot of freedom to do what we wanted and both came up with very different pieces of work.

On Friday, we helped Meg with the Choral Engineers and got to see a bit of the performance they were working on which was sounding amazing.

On Saturday, we helped Meg with Little Doorstep – all three drop-in groups.

This week has been incredible because we have done so many different things and everyone was very welcoming. It has really opened my eyes as I had never really thought about everything that goes on behind the scenes.

 

Opening Doors

Post written by: Erin Walcon

When we began our work in Torbay in 2013, there were a lot of closed doors – particularly with schools. There were some very good reasons for it, but it still felt a bit like knocking with no one answering the door.

When we would ring or email a school to offer them a free visiting workshop with a professional artist, we would be met with silence. At first, this baffled us. Why would a local school not leap at the chance to work with someone amazing, for free, at a time to suit them? How could all other schools in regions across Devon have waiting lists for this kind of offer, but our own local Torbay schools just seemed to disregard it utterly? It was (sometimes) hard to not be bitter, when 4-5 emails, 2-3 phone calls, and occasionally even a personal visit to a headteacher would result in… nothing. Lots of hours of invisible labour, all ending with tired eyes at the office and a sense of despair at what appeared to be willful ignorance.

But when you turn on your empathy button, and look at the big picture of Torbay, this apparent willful ignorance becomes something much more complex, much more understandable. It even becomes a kind of defiant courage, if you look at it right.

I have distinct memories of wrapping my ankle tightly around a metal chair, sitting in a headteacher’s office, gritting my teeth and attempting to explain (again) why this grant-funded work was not an ‘insult’ to her school, not a marker of their inability to deliver a good education to their students… I stared at her defensive face and something clicked.

This headteacher wasn’t ignorant – she was powerfully clued up.

She saw right through the trappings of this grant funding to the core premise: that we are able to offer this kind of outreach only because we’re working in an area of deprivation. And she perceived (with a sharp intelligence) that her school was eligible because she works with students in a particularly deprived area within that larger region – and she took it on the chin (like a good leader would) that this free offer was somehow a handout, or a remedial intervention, intended to ‘save’ or ‘support’ her school. And she was (naturally) defensive. The walls were up.

Because she is in that school, day-in and day-out, ensuring that students are having a meaningful experience at school, working against immense odds to deliver an education which is excellent. In spite of government initiatives which embrace nonsensical standardised testing, Year 2 SATS and a national curriculum which does not adequately honour multiple intelligences or leave space for teacher creativity or complex processes of assessment which move beyond reductive checklists.

She is in the trenches. And we were approaching with what she perceived to be a charity handout. In that moment, I kept my ankle wrapped round the chair leg to give me courage  enough to stay in the room, and I lifted my chin and I looked her in the eye and I gave her the respect she deserved. And I explained (again) with patience (not my strong suit) that this grant-funded work would be welcomed by any school, in any district. That the artists we were offering in residence were pure-magic, absolutely top of their game, and anyone would snatch them up, because they would provide a safe space for children to play, explore and invent. That I was here because we were in the trenches too – a parallel trench, fighting the same battle. That we were on the same side… the side of the children. That I profoundly respected her school, her approach, the work they were doing.

Something shifted in our conversation.

After over a year of attempted communication, we finally worked with that school for the first time after that conversation – we delivered free drama workshops with Year 6 students in Autumn 2015. Since then, we’ve been back 3 times. Now, when we email, they reply within the hour. Now, when we offer a free workshop, the replies start with ‘Yes please, when can you come?’ When we arrive, the teachers and the students have a gleam in their eye and bouncy legs – they are ready and poised to play.

This isn’t a warm-and-fuzzy story about breaking down walls, though. To me, this is a story about how long and slow the trust game is when working in an area of deprivation. Because trust is earned, not given lightly. Because people have been burned – by bad practice, by short-term parachuted work which doesn’t continue. People are used to inconsistent and short-term ‘interventions’ which don’t begin to touch the sides of what is needed. Trust is earned. Trust is earned by us knowing what is needed – because we live here too, and our kids are growing up here and we see it daily. It is earned by us respecting the courage of the school staff, starting a conversation with patience, delivering consistently excellent outreach workshops to these schools, and continuing to offer this once that first flicker of trust- so that we don’t just disappear again like so many quick-fire projects have in the past. From this flicker of trust, through this consistent bridge, we begin to form partnerships. Slowly slowly, gently gently, with patience. Something I struggle with. But I’m learning.

We’re still building this trust with schools. But we’ve seen some remarkable progress from 2015-2017, and there is clear evidence that it’s working. We are just completing the first full Open Doors Outreach programme, which is ran from 1 Jan to 31 March 2017. We worked with an astonishing 760 students, across 18 schools, delivering 30 workshops and 2 platform events. I’ll write more about this soon. Suffice it to say, the doors are opening.