17 Feb 2019

Devising Discovery Series

Post written by: Erin Walcon

On Saturday 16 Feb 2019, young people representing 12 secondary schools across Devon came together at the Exeter Northcott Theatre to share short pieces of original devised theatre they had made with the help of professional visiting artists at their schools.

This outreach programme has run (in various guises/names) for 9 years now, always with the aim of working in an open and inclusive way with young people across Devon, ensuring that arts enrichment can visit schools and work with/around drama teachers’ needs. in 2019, it was made possible by Arts Council England and the University of Exeter Widening Participation programme.

I’ve talked about this programme before in our blog (a couple of times, including its structures and how it works)- but I was struck by a few new thoughts on Saturday as I watched it unfold this time round.

As the student performers in the final pieces got ready to perform on the Northcott stage on Saturday, Lead Artist Alix Harris (Beyond Face, Barbican Theatre Plymouth, The Indra Congress), led a full-group warm up where she asked everyone to get up on stage and say, a few times, ‘I deserve to be here.’

‘Louder,’ she said. ‘Like you believe it.’

Listening to the voices ring in the space, and to Alix’s reflections later on about courage, both of the personal variety and in terms of arts advocacy, I was struck by how I need to return again and again to the very simplest things. It is here, in a place of simplicity, that the heartbeat of purpose can be re-found. Five of these came to life in front of me yesterday, as I watched 4 Lead Artists, 16 university students, 4 drama teachers, 2 technicians and 47 secondary students work together over a full day at the University of Exeter.

  1. Self-belief – I deserve to be here. This space is for me.
  2. Courage – I am strong enough to do the thing that scares me. I am strong enough to try doing it again and again, as a life practice.
  3. Arts engagement – For everyone. Regardless of their existing circumstances or barriers. Equal access.
  4. Open doors – We are stronger together – we need each other, and we learn from each other.
  5. Story – my voice & experience of the world is unique and important – the world is a richer and better place when I am able to share my stories, both real and imagined, and when I am listened to, the potentials for change come alive.

Listening to the global news on the radio as I type this now, it’s striking that the skills that are required by the devising process are essential life skills urgently needed in the world right now. Yes, this kind of work can spark a lifelong path into the arts for some young people – but also, every single person’s skills are being honed through the rich process of ensemble devising, whether that be by practicing compassion, listening to others you disagree with, learning to trust your leadership strengths, speaking a truth you believe, or straightening your back and standing more confidently than you ever felt you had a right to before.

Alix pointed this out to the audience on Saturday, describing the skills as ‘transferable’ to any life path. This came powerfully to life during the morning too, in the hallway of the studio. There, at about 11.30am, in mid-rehearsal time, Lead Artist Polly spent 15 minutes working through a conflict with a group of Year 9 boys who were struggling to listen to each other and to be sure everyone’s voice was being heard as they created their scene. Those conversations – quiet, virtually invisible, deeply embedded in the process and hidden within the final performance piece – are just as important an outcome from the outreach as the final artistic work the young people made. In these messy wonderful conflict-rich moments of negotiating power, group dynamics, and respect, life skills are born and nurtured.

Yes, the pieces of theatre that the young people created by the platform in the afternoon were thoughtful and compelling pieces of performance – raising questions about class, identity, gender, drugs/alcohol, appearance, global injustice, relationships and power.

Yes, they tackled these pieces with innovative physical approaches and worked like professional ensembles to bring them to life… but for me, the day is equally about the process of engagement, as much as the final product. The two elements feed each other, and make each other better, richer, more meaningful.

In this same vein of seeking the simple heartbeat at the centre of the work, and naming it, my reading has been returning recently to some theorists and practitioners that sit at the centre of my practice. I hate to say it, but their work and influence can be taken for granted over the last few years, and I find myself circling back to them now, with apologies in my heart…  Teaching Artists like Dorothy Heathcote.

For me, one of the most exciting elements of this outreach programme is watching the journey that the university student facilitators go on, as they develop and grow in confidence through the weeks. As they watch their mentors, then try things themselves, fail beautifully, reflect, and try again, they are demonstrating a live manifestation of Heathcote’s belief that teaching is always in motion – living through cycles of praxis to find their own approach to the craft of being a Teaching Artist – what she terms a ‘restless’ craft.

And a craft it really is.

It’s a hybrid field, where one needs both an educator’s heart and an artist’s eye, and strong sense of balance. It’s a job that requires a unique dynamic blend of pedagogue and artist – someone who, in Eric Booth’s words, ‘[…] is a practicing professional artist with the complementary skills and sensibilities of an educator, who engages people in learning experiences in, through or about the arts.’. You can read more about Teaching Artists on the ATA website here.

It was a privilege to watch a dynamic team deliver the outreach programme on Saturday, including some amazing secondary drama teachers who demonstrate these skills every day inside school settings. Long may it continue…