Year 1 of Stepping Stones

Post written by: Erin Walcon

I’ve just completed our interim report for the Stepping Stones project, which is our Arts Council-funded programme of participatory theatre activity in Torbay, running from April 2016 to April 2018.

To some degree, interim reports are thankless to write. For one thing, it’s a lot of paper. A lot of numbers. A lot of totting up.

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But on another level, they can be a really great chance to add everything up (literally and figuratively). I find them a useful space for reflection – on what has gone well, on what hasn’t and on the surprises we’ve encountered along the way. It’s also an exercise in honest storytelling – how to think through the challenges and frame them proactively in terms of moving forward. I find this process of storying really useful, both in life and in terms of large scale projects like Stepping Stones that involve lots of artists, lots of partners, and LOTS of children.  I guess any moment of stillness and reflection is good, but especially when you’ve been as busy as we have.

The first year of Stepping Stones has been transformative for Doorstep Arts. There is absolutely no denying that – it has utterly changed our sustainability from a small struggling arts organisation with no core infrastructure, to where we are now.

But even I was really pleasantly gobsmacked by the level of activity we’ve managed to churn out in this first year. When you add up the numbers, it’s really overwhelming to think about the number of children, young people and families we’ve worked with in an integrated and ongoing way throughout this year – the sustained and deep approach has a sense of geographical embeddedness and integrity too often missing from parachuted-in one-off projects.

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At the mid-way point in early April 2017, we have now delivered a full year of integrated year-round activity. This has included 3 full terms of participatory drama for children and young people in 11 different drama groups across Torbay. This equates to a total of 33 weeks of ongoing consistent, high-quality participatory arts provision across Torbay for 151 children aged 4 to 25 each week.

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Over these three terms, participants have explored a new theme/stimulus chosen by the artistic team for each term. For example, in Autumn Term 2016, all our groups explored themes from Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, which took wildly diverse forms.

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Our oldest group, Doorstep Youth Theatre, created a piece of political theatre titled Rumpus which gently questioned a lack of political engagement.

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They chanted the phrase ‘Where’s our rumpus?’ with regard to current global and UK contemporary events, and wrote spoken word poetry about what it means to be growing up in this context, facing scrolling social media feeds of overwhelming political apathy.

Their work has astounded us with its complexity, its maturity, its playfulness, and the groups have embraced a diverse set of aesthetics and new theatrical languages with boisterous enthusiasm and hunger to learn more. All of the 151 young people we work with each week now identify as artists and believe that they can make work of substance– that their voices matter and deserve to be heard.

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In addition to this, our Open Doors outreach programme has worked with 21 schools, providing 35 visiting professional artist workshops for 1,053 children from Key Stage 1 to Key Stage 4.

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Through Open Doors, we’ve also supported 17 workshops by professional artists in the Torbay Libraries, working with 441 participants over the year.

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Our Foot in the Door internship and mentorship programme has supported 12 emerging artists in Torbay through 1:1 mentorship, providing them with paid stipends, advice, office space and support from professional artists and producers.

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We began the project in April 2016 with an amazing launch event – a large community dance platform event co-hosted with Dance in Devon.

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This platform, titled Dance on Your Doorstep, which featured 103 community participants aged 4 to 84 sharing their work together on the Palace Theatre stage.

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On 31 March 2017, we finished up the first year with another platform event at the Palace Theatre, titled Up and Away, which featured all our Doorstep groups performing their original work together on the Palace Theatre stage for a packed audience.

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These two bookend events have created a sense of aspiration and achievement for us and for the young people we work with, and the use of the Palace Theatre mainstage has been important in enticing participants from our community centre sites to participate in new places and with new people – we can see the progression routes into the arts for Torbay’s children are really working.  

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The Stepping Stones project has created clear progression pathways to access Torbay’s theatres from some of Torbay’s furthest reaching neighbourhoods.

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On 1 April 2016, we took over the creative learning provision based at the Arena Studio at the back of the Palace Theatre in Paignton. We re-titled the offer Doorstep Arts Studio Courses (or DAS) and after a first summer term of transition, we are now thrilled to find that 5 DAS courses are running with a live total of 75 children taking part – this is an increase of 66%, with further growth expected. In the first transition term, DAS courses were taught by Doorstep co-director Jade Campbell and associate artist Michael Smith, who focused on devising/original theatre skills.

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From Sept 2016, we have employed Paignton-based theatre-maker and Dartington graduate Polly Ferguson to take over the leadership of DAS. Under Polly, the DAS curriculum is composed of a rich variety of theatre-making skills, including devising, puppetry, new writing, diverse forms of dance (contemporary, Latin American, street) and still some musical theatre too. The numbers in the DAS courses have ballooned under Polly’s vibrant leadership, and we have been astonished at how quickly it has created a bridge for students from our community centre sites.

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Students are now enthusiastically tackling making original (and challenging!) work themselves, devising in ensembles around complex themes, creating work which raises big questions about the world and their place in it, writing their own music and spoken word poetry, and learning about new diverse forms of performance.

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‘I love that we can make what we want. We’ve never been able to before.’ (DAS participant, aged 12)

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‘There is a real sense of community now with the parents and families, we feel like we’re a part of something important.’ (Parent, Little Doorstep and DAS)

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‘I’ve never worked like this before – it’s like, now, we all make the stories happen.’ (Course assistant)

This last piece of feedback really struck a cord with us, and we’ve adopted it as the new Doorstep Arts strapline because it captures so perfectly what our core ethos is, both artistically and in terms of social change – the notion that we all matter, and ALL children deserve to access the arts and to be artists: ‘We all make the story happen’.

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Luckily for us, there is a whole second year to go in this funding… because we’re not done dreaming and working yet… there is too much still to do. In Torbay, the need is huge, and we’re only just beginning.

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Our Foot in the Door mentorship scheme will continue for another year. This is an open invitation to young people to express interest in getting involved with Doorstep at any time, and a staged process of support which is unique to each young person’s needs. Over the last year we have supported 12 young people through Foot in the Door – 8 of these have been under 18, and have done work experience, internships, or worked as class assistants with us. 4 of these have been older (18-25) emerging artists who have receive our support, both in advice and financial terms.

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This year has been hard work, but the moment where I felt the most hope and belief about its legacy going forward was when I was watching the Up and Away platform on 31 March, wearing my headset back at the lighting booth. In an inspired decision, Doorstep Director Meg Searle had our oldest participants join the youngest group on stage for a special sequence. The youngest children had devised a physical theatre piece where they wanted to ‘fly’. Knowing this wasn’t possible, we were happy to use our imaginations and believe together with them, but Meg had a flash of inspiration.

In front of a packed audience of their parents and friends and families, these little ones were lifted up and twirled around by the older children, and the impossible happened. They really flew.

Their faces were alight.

In that moment, I could feel the ground move under me – a grinding, rusty creak of enormous momentum as four years of graft… hope… stubborn willfulness to not give in against sometimes impossible odds moved into gear. We’re all lifting each other.

Together, we all make this story happen.

Sometimes, by willfully believing in the impossible, we can all fly.

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Beautiful chaos

Post written by: Erin Walcon

Tonight, in our DYT session, we were finally able to get a good start on generating content for the second half of the show.

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Up until now, we’ve kind of been in limbo, waiting for casting. It’s hard to know which strands of the story will need to weave through into the second half until you know which characters are which.

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Now we know.

So tonight, it was all systems go.

Even more excitingly, we had visual artist Nathalie Palin and production leader Mair George in the space, to shape and guide discussions around design concepts.

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There is something really magical about having design elements in the room while you’re making the story.

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There are 5-6 scrappy song ideas on the table, plus 2 other songs fairly fully realised. We’re thinking that the narrative arc of the second half will be a connect-the-dots between the songs, rather than pre-scripted narrative choices. The devised playing we did tonight was really useful in thinking about narrative arcs of the key characters and what their journey might be.

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Playtime is important, as my colleagues remind me.

(I can tend to get overly tasky and need reminding.)

There are some early lyrics on the table too. Tonight we played with four songs in total.

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We rehearsed Could I Would I Should I, which is fairly complete as a skeleton. We started some initial ideas for The March of the Red Hood Army, which is a rough idea involving lots of Little Red Riding Hoods. (Creepy? But interesting.) Beth brought a lovely set of lyrics for song called Glue, which she and Izzy and Jess orchestrated. And Chloe and I worked out some hybrid lyrics for the Princess Rant, which is a duet featuring Cinderella and Rapunzel.

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It always feels a little chaotic in the early stages, with lots of ideas bubbling in every corner of the room. Too too soon, this will focus in, and the narrative strands will be tightened and we’ll move into shaping the story. So we’re enjoying the early playtime.

 

Co-Creation

Post written by: Erin Walcon

We’re just starting the full devising and writing process for The Woods. As I mentioned before, the devising process we use is constantly evolving and changing, but we do know that the early stages are the fun playful bit. It’s the time where any idea counts… where Milky White could indeed be a cyborg as James suggested last night, or Cinderella secretly a ninja who wields her glass slipper as a weapon. The early devising stages are no-holds-barred, wild ideas required, think outside the box time. The young people we work with are incredibly good at this.

By next week, we’ll already have started focusing that in. We’ll be moving up the democracy triangle, starting to weed out the craziest notions, starting to find a sense of purpose and cohesion in this narrative we’re co-constructing together.

It’s really important that we’re all telling the same story. That involves negotiation, finding our way together.

So last night, at our Doorstep Youth Theatre sessionwe had a team production meeting and drew design concepts, wrote character dream plans, and continued songwriting.

Writing the original music for the second half of the show will become an increasing focus over the next month – and so will design and script-writing. We’ve cast the first half of the show now (the company finds out their roles tonight, oooh the nerves!). But we’re still looking for our technical team, which includes ‘Technical Lead’ roles for design, music, costume/wardrobe, and lighting. Any interested young people can email doorsteparts@gmail.com.

Beginnings

Post written by: Erin Walcon

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We’re beginning.

Devising a new piece.

We’ve been in incubation and inspiration stage and we’re about to kindle the fire.

On 24 April, we began to plot, officially, in the studio.

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We’re going out of the woods.

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Or rather, we’re progressing into the middle of the Devising Diamond. (Stay with me.)

This is a work-in-progress attempt to articulate how the devising process works for Doorstep at the moment.

Did I mention it’s in progress?

Evidence:

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So, this scrappy hand-drawn messy mish-mash of metaphors is the product of nearly 20 years of devising with young people and trying to explain (evoke?) (capture?) a process of co-creation and collaboration without being prescriptive.

There’s still some work to do, in the ‘how to articulate’ department.

But meanwhile, we’re nearing the waterline on our new project: The Woods. See above… the waterline marks the point where a project is alive and quilting, where the secret plotting and kindling and inspiration and rooting begins to bear fruit. (How many metaphors can I mash together in one image, you ask? A lot.)

Through funding from Garfield Weston and the Agatha Christie Festival in Torbay, we are able to add this very special extra project to this year…alongside our DAS scripted production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, we will be creating an entirely original musical, Out of the Woods. We will showcase the two pieces together on the mainstage of the Palace Theatre in October.

It’s early stages, and we’re still putting the technical design team together. There will be Foot in the Door interns involved in the design & technical elements of the production. Early design/visual inspiration ideas are up on the Doorstep Arts concept board.

We’ve done one early scratch sharing as part of our Stepping Stones showcase in March, and now we’re entering the composing/writing stage.

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I’ll be sharing some of the writing and early song ideas up here on the blog because part of our job with this project is to capture the artistic process… and we’re going to create a curated installation, which archives and storytells that process at Torre Abbey in September. It’s going to force us (in the best possible way) to capture what we do.

For now, it’s a hand-drawn diamond.

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By the end, hopefully a rich articulation of how devised work with young people is a pedagogically and artistically rich process of co-creation.

Let’s begin.

Open Doors Outreach 2017

Post written by: Erin Walcon

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Because this is worth fighting for.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.