One-Armed Armies

Post written by: Erin Walcon

There’s a billboard advertisement that I keep driving by on my way to the Doorstep office this week. I think it’s for Sainsburys, or another big supermarket and it features a woman, holding a baby on her hip, and a wok in the other hand. The title on the billboard reads ‘Mandy’s one-armed stir fry’ or similar. She is smiling knowingly out at all the cars whizzing by, a sardonic eyebrow lift… a sense that she is fully in control, that this stir fry will be delicious and nutritious, that the baby is well fed, clean, content. She is having it all, doing it all.

Often as I’ve driven past this billboard this week, my own baby has been wailing from the backseat. In my decidedly untidy car, with my unkempt personage slightly wild-eyed behind the wheel – racing from a school run, or back to a school pick up. Mentally composing emails that I won’t have the fingers free to type for another 3 days. Listening to global news which is so far worse than anything I could have imagined it stuns and baffles me into an aghast numb silence. And yet, my mind returns to Mandy.

Why does Mandy irritate me? I think it over to myself, with my half a brain cell free to mull it over, in between loads of laundry and piles of dishes and stacks of unpaid domestic labour and further radio reports of governments slashing budgets and building walls. Later, collapsing into bed, my brain cell finally stutters out its conclusion. Mandy irritates me because she is standing alone on that billboard, smiling at her wok.

My own often one-armed life is sustained by a web of remarkable women who help and bolster and make impossible things possible. Their arms are mighty and they wield them with compassion. Doorstep’s work is driven by a network of strong, intelligent, committed women, who all are working around enormous obstacles of care-giving, family-support, and invisible labour. It’s an army. And, yes, at various points, each of us is one-armed or no-armed, but we have each other’s backs.

Since I don’t have billboard printing skills, I’ll instead use the tools at my disposal and write instead – even if I’m pecking it out with one finger in 30 second bursts.

Finding the time to write is hard.

A short piece I wrote about the Resilience Web just came out in the March 2017  issue of Research in Drama Education. It’s about this stuff too.

Finding time to write is hard, but important.

 

Earth Echoes – In TORBAY!

I am writing this post for a few reasons, one is down to the fact that I never write blog posts and Erin said we all had to contribute :). Another is that this a major project that Doorstep Arts was involved in and it needs writing about because of its sheer wonderfulness. Finally, it is mainly because of the affect Earth Echoes has had on me as a participant – a participant who went to school in Torbay, is now 34 and this was the first time I had performed on the ERIC stage!

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A bit of context: Earth Echoes was a community project that we sometimes called the Geo Opera, working in collaboration with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Mark Laville, Hugh Nankivel and Doorstep Arts and it was actually based in Torbay!  Yes, you heard me – this phenomenal project was actually based IN Torbay, with members of the whole community. From young children to grandparents, from first time performers, to seasoned professional opera singers – all together, creatively collaborating in Torbay!

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The impact it had on me: Me being Jade Campbell.

My background:

So, I moved to Torbay back when I was 8 years old.  I moved from Nottingham and the school I went to there celebrated every single religious celebration it could. I had white skin and I was in the minority. This was a good thing!

My memories of this school are filled with excitement and joy.  We celebrated festivals throughout the year with theatre, storytelling, dancing, singing, costume, steel drums, carnival, food and this is what our learning was based on – complete immersion into all these wonderfully diverse cultures, in the most creative way possible.

We then moved to Brixham and my memory of my first day at school was walking into assembly, sitting in lines on the hard, wooden, cold, floor, a hymn projected onto the over head projector and singing banal hymns.  My 8 year old self accepting the strict rules of my new school, accepting the coldness of the singing and accepting that this was our new life in this new fishing town!

The contrast was quite shocking.  But what I realise now as an adult working tirelessly to facilitate cultural and creative experiences in Torbay, if you have never had these creative experiences before, you won’t actually know what you are missing! I moved to Edinburgh when I was 9 for a year and then Canada at 12 for 2 years.  Each time being exposed to wonderfully enriching cultural and creative experiences, each time moving back to Brixham thinking – hmmm beautiful coastline! and partying is fun in Torbay!

So in a way, thats why I do the work I do.  Because theatre helped me to explore my identity as a teenager, theatre gave me a safe way in to express my teenage angst (I had to go elsewhere to have these experiences!) and it also enriched my life long learning. I feel passionately about this happening in Torbay, because my family live here, my nieces are having their own babies and I want Torbay to be a place that those little ones can grow up in it having been nourished in creativity and love and actually having options, other than partying.

Why participate in Earth Echoes?

I have my own creative practice, which usually involves facilitating other people’s creative processes and I have worked hard to get to the point to ensure I am paid as an artist to do this – it hasn’t been easy.  So why choose to sign up to the Geo Opera as a participant, without being paid – well, here are a few reasons:

  • Meg guilted me into it
  • I wanted to participate in a project with my boy
  • The subject matter – the environmental impact of humans
  • I haven’t been a participant in years and in away it was like a CPD session for me

What happened?

The process was fantastic.  I was on the receiving end of a professional project, Directed by Mark Laville and Ass. directed by my two favourite people – both friends and colleagues: Meg and Erin.  I was pushed as a performer, in so many ways – singing, physically (Climbing on some questionable structures that we hadn’t met until 2 days before the show), learning lines and keeping my energy up whilst also co-producing Doorstep Theatre festival, day to day running of Doorstep Arts and working with my regular groups.

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I am telling you, these structures were scary!

I worked with about 50 members of the Torbay community that I haven’t worked with before and I was so inspired by all of them – we all came from different backgrounds. The process was marvellous and we all developed and grew as a creative artist in some way or another.

I loved being in the presence of Hugh – such a warm and genuine person and facilitator – I felt like I actually had some rhythmic abilities in the end, Meg made me feel like I could actually hold a note and sing and also being pushed by Mark – he was relentless because he strives for the BEST in everyone and expects no less.  It feels impossible to live up to his expectations, but that is what pushed me to do my best – because I had something important to say about the world – a global message!

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If the process was fantastic then I have no words to describe the actual performance – it was mind blowing – I was on the stage on my OWN TURF for the first time ever!  It felt so powerfully meaningful!  We hosted an international conference in Torbay and WE, the people of Torbay, were giving delegates something to think about with Earth Echoes! It had relevance to Torbay, but also put Torbay on the map as an important site for exploring real, relevant and meaningful subjects through creative means.

I left that stage shaking and crying because I gave my heart and soul to it, because I care so much about Torbay, I care so much about the planet and I care so much about people and people connecting!

THE ROCK CONNECTS US! The rock connects us all, whatever our backgrounds or cultural reference, we are connected – lets make the most of it and keep creating, keep sharing, keep loving and keep looking out for one another!

I realise this is an abrupt end to a heartfelt blog, but I could write a thesis on this experience… I wont. I must dash as I need to pick up my children from school, I need to send another 10 emails and clean the toilet too!

I will leave you with some more photos and leave the rest for another blog post on another day.

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Wild Things

We’re about to walk into the next Doorstep Theatre festival this week. This is our 7th season, and it feels like we’re finally managing to get a sense of rhythm and flow to the work. It’s exciting to see how the ongoing participatory work we run year-round is feeding the festival – and particularly special to see how the young people we work with are progressing as artists.

All of our Doorstep Arts participatory groups are being inspired by Maurice Sendak’s book Where the Wild Things Are this term.

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We love this idea of starting all 12 groups from a common stimulus and then watching the work creatively spiral in a dozen different directions, each shaped by the strengths and vision of the group.

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The youngest groups (aged 4-7) are creating their own wild monster creatures, using face paint and their wickedly wonderful imaginations.

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Our oldest group, Doorstep Youth Theatre, is devising their own original response to the book. This piece will perform an early scratch performance on Saturday 29 October, as part of the upcoming festival, alongside Conrad Murray’s DenMarked.

The DYT piece, loosely titled Lullaby or perhaps Rumpus, is a short scratch piece at the moment- only about 10 minutes long. Facilitated by Jade Campbell, Hugh Malyon and myself, the script is an original creation, written collaboratively by the company. We often use Natalie Goldberg’s Rules of Writing Practice during our devising process. This non-school style of writing creates a space where everyone in the company is unquestionably a Writer – no matter what we may have been told in school about our own writing skills. Within the devising studio, all of us have capacity to be writers – and it is often the most poetic, messy, misspelled, and wild writing which enriches the piece. And it is this notion of ‘wildness’ that I’m intrigued by as I look at this short scratch piece in mid-development.

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There are two original songs in the piece. One song is called Lullaby and one song is called Rumpus. These have been written by 3 members of the company – Elley, Izzy and Millie. These two melodies compete with each other – there is a call of the wild, and a reassuring song of home. But they pull and twist against each other… a tension exists. The lead character Russell is torn between them. There is a Chorus of Wild Things who live by the ‘Rule of Fun’ – manic and mercurial. Russell is drawn to them, but also drawn back to the lullaby. Perhaps Russell is torn between his own wildness and his longing for the comfort of home?

Wildness – the embracing of it, the fear of it, the necessity of abandoning ourselves to it, these concepts are permeating the DYT piece.

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But there is something else emerging within it too – a question. I’m not sure how much I’m driving this question from the director’s seat, or whether its a collective wondering of the ensemble. The piece seems to be asking a question about where the good stories are in our world – right now. Particularly this moment of 2016, post-Brexit, mid-USA-election, overwhelming refugee crises, and drowning in social media stories of pain, despair and human coldness, there is a feeling of being lost. Of somehow a more negative kind of wildness overwhelming our societies – and a fear of the darkness and chaos which seems to be implied by it.

My social media feed is saturated by it.

I’m overwhelmed by this.

And I’m 36. I wonder what it must feel like to be 13, 15, or 18 years old in this moment in the world?

The Scratch piece will perform on Saturday and we’ll ask for audience feedback on it – seeing some advice about where it should go and what it should become. This term’s work will finish at the end of November with final sharings of all the groups’ work. More updates soon, I promise.

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Dancing on Our Doorstep

The Doorstep Theatre festival just finished up a couple of weeks ago and this was a very important one – what could have been our sixth and last festival, but what now looks to be the beginning of a really exciting 3 year journey.

We’ve received news from Arts Council England that they will be funding 2 years of activity in Torbay through Doorstep Arts, called Stepping Stones. While we’re still waiting to hear from some very important (and essential) match funders for this work, our hearts are full with all that can now be possible – for our children, and for our friends’ children, and for all the children of this community who deserve to be able to play, and imagine, and be in a safe place to take risks and try out their voices and possible selves.

This is a wistful time – a tap on the table and wait time – but it’s also a really busy time because the new Spring term has just begun, and all our 12 groups are heaving, thriving, boisterous, and so full of joy. It’s a real pleasure to see so many new faces at the new Palace Theatre Studio Courses (formerly TAF), which we took over on 1 April 2016. It’s a real pleasure to see so many of our Drop-In groups absolutely full to capacity, and to see small and important growth with the smaller groups which desperately need to expand.

It’s been 3 years of hard graft, sheer effort, determination and will… but at the Doorstep Theatre Festival on 9 April, we got to celebrate some of the successes of that graft.

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We watched 111 performers come together at the Palace Theatre, in a partnership project with Dance in Devon, which ended in a full theatre dancing together.

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The Dance on Your Doorstep platform event encapsulated much of what we’re trying to do here – with ROC Creative participants dancing alongside Sixth Form students alongside primary aged dance groups… a rich rainbow array of dance forms, styles, bodies, abilities, techniques, and interpretations.

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It was glorious. There’s so much more work to be done, but with nights like this to celebrate, we feel ready for the next round.

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Under its Roof

The Doorstep Arts team is getting ready for some big (ish) changes in the next month or two. We’re slowly getting ready for them, but meanwhile our artistic projects are rolling on merrily.

At the moment, our Doorstep Youth Theatre group is getting ready for a couple of sharings. Tonight they’ll be performing their radio play Lift live at the Palace Theatre in Paignton, alongside Sound Communities.

And in a week’s time, they’ll be performing as part of the Under One Roof charity event at the Princess Theatre in Torquay.

The title Under One Roof is largely about raising awareness about homelessness here in Torbay, but the phrase has been evoking a vague ghost-like memory of a poem I once read, so today I went looking for it.

And I found it.

It’s actually  not a poem, per se. It’s a quote by Barbara Kingsolver, one of my favourite writers.

And it’s this:

‘The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for.

And the most you can do is live inside that hope.

Not admire it from a distance,

but live right in it,

under its roof.’

I think what is echoing round in my mind at the moment is how difficult that is to do… to live right inside your hope. It means you spend a lot of time believing in something you can’t see yet. And for us, at the moment, a lot of time visioning something not yet possible.

Crossing the Threshold

The Doorstep Arts team is in the midst of some big transitions at the moment. Some of those are physical and little and some of those are strategic and huge (like hearing that Arts Council England has approved 1.2 millions pounds to support the Collaborative Touring Network for another three years – wahoo!).

Stepping over a threshold into a new space is scary and wonderful at the same time – there is a fear of the unknown, and a small wry sadness at saying goodbye to the old familiar comfortable space you’re leaving behind.  The smell of the familiar, the worn corners of a way of working which is accustomed, faded… ours through the making.

The Doorstep team are in need of an office. This need is becoming pressing.

For three years now, we’ve met at our various houses – in front rooms, over kitchen tables, often with children playing in the next room, or in-between school runs. As three mums who also run an arts organisation, this has fitted into our busy and scattered lives in a very organic way. But increasingly, we are finding that we’ve outgrown this way of working…both in terms of capacity, and in terms of head space.

This month, we’re delivering about six different projects… we have professional artists working in 12 secondary schools as part of the RAW Outreach programme, delivering free devised theatre workshops to drama classes. We have dance artists working in transition-aged classrooms, with year 6 & 7 students, doing breakdance and contemporary dance as part of our Dance on Your Doorstep Community Platform, funded by Awards for All. We are making a radio play alongside Sound Communities with one our drama groups. We’re beginning the Geo-Opera in collaboration with Mark Laville, Hugh Nankivell, Steve Sowden, and a host of other talented and amazing artists.  We are delivering the Chin-Up Project with Prom Prom. We are continuing to run the People’s Health Trust-funded Pips drama club at the Acorn Centre, getting ready to go into artistic residence at the Palace Theatre in Paignton, and all the time, running our other six weekly drama groups (which are all growing!) and producing the Doorstep Theatre Festival for April 2016.

It’s safe to say that we’re stretched.

It’s a good stretch.

It’s like elastic – we’re doing a lot of good stuff, and it’s all purposeful, and useful, and needed. But a good stretch can quickly become a strain if you’re not careful. You have to pay attention to the twinge that says ‘enough now’ – and know when to respond to it.

As mothers, and feminists, and creatives, it’s important to honour and respect our family, domestic and personal space – our daily lives, and preserve them from the bombardment of work, which can ping and ding at any time of the day with email, text, tweets, etc.

It’s somewhat overwhelming when you work in the arts, and part of our goal over the next few months as we cross the threshold into our new space, both literal and metaphorical, is to preserve our quiet space and time. To hold it sacred and precious, and not let it be disturbed.

Or at least to find a balance that works for each of us – and that’s different for each person.

So for us, this minute, that means we’re working toward taking up an office (even though that’s scary!) and it means that we’re trying to get some more core funding in, to help pay ourselves for the hours of time we put in for free.

We’re building some walls between the ‘Work’ of running this organisation and our ‘Lives’ which have made its birth and inception possible. This is sort of bittersweet – it’s like watching a child grow up… looking forward to who they are going to be, but sort of mourning the loss of the babyhood, its innocence, excitement and newness.

We’re standing in the doorway, anyway.

Expect pictures soon of the new office (we’re very excited, Meg is choosing colours for the walls and there are plans involving pallet furniture) and expect lots of exciting updates as strategic plans unfold over the next few months too.

Thanks for being with us on this journey.

 

Resilience & Resistance & Revelry

Post written by: Erin Walcon

Now that we’re in the final two week stretch of the Resilience Web project, I’m feeling reflective. It’s a kind of a nostalgic, look back at all the Hard Work, but more importantly, it’s a looking forward at The Work That’s Yet to Come But Needs Doing.

The last six months have been a wild, wonderful experiment and our small creative team is tired but inspired by them. We had a reflection session on Monday of this week, and gathered our collective learnings together around my kitchen table. Mostly, we learned that young people are amazing imagineers (imagination + engineer), inventors, storytellers, dancers, performers, songwriters, musicians, thinkers, and creatures of play and joy.

Mostly, we learned more from them than they learned from us. This is not a surprise.

We began the process of devising Grit and Crossing the Threshold with a mild interest in how you nurture resilience with children and young people, especially knowing that our young people in Torbay grow up in exceptionally adverse circumstances.

Brace for statistics: A quarter of children in Torbay grow up in ‘official’ poverty.  In some neighbourhoods, this number is closer to 40%. In addition to this, Torbay leads the nation for families ‘on the edge’ of poverty – in other words, working families who are just about making it, but who are only one bill or one paycheck away from not making it. 37% of Torbay’s families fit this category, and support services for these kids are much more limited.

What does that have to do with resilience?

Well, it’s just this. Some of the major projects into resilience in the UK – and there are some great ones – are developed within a social care or mental health framework which understand that children growing up in poverty have a need to develop resilience. Amazing inspiring, work, like that done by Boing Boing UK creates training and skill-sharing sessions for social workers, teachers, and mental health professionals to develop resources to support resilience. We had hoped that our Resilience Web Project in Torbay would expand learning about the value of arts-based methods of resilience support, particularly through theatre and drama. It did, but it also raised some critical questions too. We’re still sitting inside these.  They’re big questions.  There is room to sit inside, and we’d like to welcome some more friends in and have a party.

One of the key questions is this:

In supporting resilience, we are encouraging young people to develop a centre of gravity, to overcome obstacles, to stand back up when life knocks them down, to be bouncy.

But if you happen to have been born into a life that knocks you over a lot more than the other 5 kids down the street, you get tired. If you happen to be born into a life where you don’t get as much to eat, or as many opportunities or as many bedtime stories as most other kids. And maybe… just maybe… it isn’t fair that we’re asking that kid to get extra bouncy. Maybe it looks a bit like victim-blaming?  Asking them to get better at surviving a life that is hard and isn’t likely to get any easier? Accepting their fate and just dealing with it better? That doesn’t feel ethical.

So our conclusion?

You can’t just work on resilience – not just that. At the same time, you have to create space for revelry and laughter and joy. At the same time, you have help to nurture a healthy sense of resistance – of speaking up against the systems which can cause endemic injustices with regard to poverty and deprivation. Resistance and resilience must go hand in hand – in a way that feels strangely reminiscent of Augusto Boal and Paulo Freire and a 1970s style of idealism and political activism and conscientization and critical consciousness.

And we, the Doorstep team, would argue that within that, there MUST be space for revelry in this work too. Joy is an essential part of the work – and children who are facing more difficult lives need laughter as much as any other child, and sometimes in their life situations, laughter can be particularly hard to find.

So that’s 3 Rs I think we’re advocating for.  A bit like school – the 3 Rs of ‘Reading, Writing and ‘Rithmatic’, right?  Except our 3 Rs are ‘Resilience, Resistance and Revelry’.

But we just had a chat today, Meg and me and we think maybe there’s a 4th R in there.  (At risk of over-killing the alliteraton, I know, sorry.)

  • Resilience
  • Resistance
  • Revelry
  • Risk

That 4th R is pretty important too… without personal risk, and healthy risk-taking, it’s hard to live a full and whole life.  And artistically, without risk, the work is bland and uninteresting and stagnant. Risk is scary. Brene Brown speaks eloquently about the power of vulnerability, and I would argue that being vulnerable is about laying yourself open to the risk of being hurt – but that risk also opens up the possibility of joy and love in a life.  Being vulnerable is part of being human, part of engaging with the whole juicy orange of life. Taking risks is something we learn to do by trying.

Artistic risks may have to do with picking up a guitar for the first time and trying to strum a chord. Artistic risks may have to do with devising a show in an entirely new and untried way. Artistic risks may have to do with singing by yourself in front of 250 year 7 students. Artistic risk may be attempting something very brave in a very short time frame with a very small budget. All of these risks have just been taken in Torbay through this project.

Personal risk may have quite a lot do with being a teenager – or a child – who is stepping out into the world and doing things for the first time. Going to your first drama session, with a bunch of strangers you don’t know is scary and vulnerable and risky. You might not make any friends. You might not like it.  You might get put on the spot. Or… not. You might find a home, a family, a set of friends, a safe place to imagine and to be yourself.

So much of adolescence is about necessary risks – proving yourself, testing your limits, feeling out the edges of your potential, rites of passage, adrenhaline-laced adventure, silly choices, and growing up.

What drama spaces offer is a safe space in which to do some of this work… fictional stories in which we can try out risky behaviours, faces, voices, selves, and then discard them again without consequences. Drama spaces offer stories and characters who can go on journeys of our making, and we can go with them.

When the 22 young people who devised Grit took the title character Tess on a journey to alien worlds, we all went with her. We all found our own strength, and determination, and were forced to name our fear and show that we were scared and accept it anyway. Tess took us all to a place we needed to go, and in journeying there and back again, we emerge back into our worlds a little bit more resilient, a little bit bouncier, a little bit more centred. (And tired, because touring a show is hard work.)

But I think we all came back from our Grit journey a bit more resistant too. In singing a song about the ethical problems with standardized testing TO a full school group, we were resisting some of the general acceptance of testing as an acceptable form of monitoring child progress.

In doing that through an original song, in an original devised production, we were demonstrating that ‘testing’ someone’s potential can look a lot of different ways, and that filling in bubbles with a No 2 pencil is only one of them… how do you measure a young person’s limits?  How do you measure their potential?  Not with multiple choice questions.

We need much bigger questions than that.

Big ones we can all live inside, and with space to play.