Never quite hitting the dizzying heights of 5′ myself, I am well aware that size isn’t everything. However, having just completed the biggest project of my career to date, I’m coming round to the fact that it does matter.
This weekend, the curtain has gone down on Leeds’ first Inter-Schools’ Creative Production Project. This project was born out of an idea put to the Alwoodley councillors by a collective schools’ youth panel some time ago. It turned out that North Leeds youngsters were crying out for dramatic opportunities which would enable them to collaborate with students from other schools, and would culminate in a performance staged somewhere bigger than their own school hall.
This was the point at which the Council approached me, knowing the work I have done in the past through the community interest branch of my business, and asked if I could put on a show with students from a number of schools.
Never one to shy away from a challenge, and always being keen to attempt something new, my response was: I could. Sure. I just don’t think that would be the best way to give the children what they’re after.
Why Take The Easy Road?
As I could see it, if the children really wanted a chance to collaborate, they needed ownership. If they so eagerly sought opportunities to perform outside of school, they needed more than one show. As always, if they were so enthusiastic about the nuts and bolts of theatre-making, I felt they needed to do more than just perform.
From there, the project grew. The biggest hurdle was cleared fairly easily; I was lucky enough to have the backing of the council from the outset. That’s thanks to my portfolio of successful community projects, I suppose. It meant my proposal was accepted, and the project began.
Many Creative Minds Are So Much Better Than One
I have never understood those creative types who insist on flying solo. To my mind, creativity is something far better shared. That said, it needs to be shared with the right people. When a project has your own name all over it, selecting a team you can trust can be a tricky task. I feel blessed to have found people who share my passion, enthusiasm, motivation and energy. It is a double blessing that they also understand my ethos and uphold similar values when working with youngsters. It is having a team like this, which makes projects of such magnitude attainable.
With the staff team in place, leadership panels were selected in every school and production meetings held with each of these. Theatre visits and backstage tours were organised, along with skills workshops and creative competitions.
Of course there were hiccups along the way. One thing I have learnt, is not to expect 100% buy-in at all times, as it only leads to disappointment. One or two schools proved hard to win over in the early stages. They had the interest from the students, but were reluctant to commit any staff member to the project for fear of overloading them.
An early stipulation of mine, was that the only way this project could succeed fully, would be with an in-house point of contact in each school. As an external practitioner, I cannot also play the role of internal liaison, no matter how skillfully I can multi-role.
Schools unwilling to meet this requirement, unfortunately, would be unable to stay the course. Once I had accepted that I needed to let certain institutions go, I was able to focus my attention on the five remaining participating schools. That was when I realised just how much size matters.
A Numbers Game
When discussing the project with each of the Theatres I had secured, it soon became clear that a curtain call wouldn’t be possible. Health and safety these days means there is a limit on most stages, of between 60 and 70 bodies. From my five schools, I had just over 130 children signed up to perform, or crew, the show. That meant we either had to battle with the backstage traffic of two curtain calls, adding considerable time to the end of the show, at a point when the audience would be itching to collect their starlets and leave. Or, I had to find an alternative solution.
It was meetings like those, where I had moments of blind panic. What had possessed me to make this project even bigger than it needed to be? What was I thinking?
Thoughts like these, soon gave way to excitement with each additional production meeting in a school, or following every workshop I delivered. What the children stood to gain from the project in its entirety, was immeasurable.
However, a project like this could not possibly run smoothly throughout, and some schools had far less hands-on development time than I would have liked. That said, the time spent within all institutions was quality time. Participants were involved and instrumental in the shaping of the piece every step of the way, and I made sure that they felt this ownership keenly. To have the knowledge of being a single cog in such a huge machine, knowing that the mechanics will fail if even one tiny wheel stops moving, gives quite a sense of self-worth. The ways in which children strive to rise to a challenge they have been set is nothing short of remarkable.
Rewards Both Ways
People who come on board for the first time often ask during show week: How do you do it? I sometimes wonder if they really mean why?
Show week is stressful. End of story. Any production project with youngsters involved poses many a logistical nightmare. This was certainly no exception. I had to organise enough chaperones to meet the council requirements, and then add an extra handful to cover any emergencies and ensure we had runners who weren’t allocated their own groups. Hair and makeup for this number of children is challenging to say the least, and executing the simple task of collecting bags at the end of an evening is suddenly a gargantuan mission.
It would be a lie to say that everything was perfect (perfection is an impossible notion to achieve at any rate) and I would certainly change some things before attempting the next project of this kind.
But would I do it again? Of course I would.
Why? It’s simple. To witness first-hand what those hundred and thirty something youngsters took from the experience of performing on three professional stages, to around 500 paying audience members in total, is something comparable to nothing else.
To see the high school cohort flourish with the extra leadership responsibilities they were given, and the youngsters grow in confidence from start to finish is an incredible thing. The vicarious buzz from that many little stars waiting in the wings, and the beams on their faces when they know they have done their best is almost as infectious as the buzz of performing first-hand. Knowing how much those youngsters have learnt about stage craft, and how much their confidence has grown in the process, makes every sleepless night along the way entirely worthwhile.
Who wouldn’t want to feel the buzz of performing multiplied by 130?
So, why do I do it? In truth, because I wish there had been someone like me, offering projects like this when I was ten.
Now I’ll let the curtain fall on IMAGINE, and I can begin brain-storming the next big challenge.