01 Apr 2017

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…


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.