cropped IMG 1293

4.11 Performance

 

When the performance element of the project was first formulated in 2008-2009, Stephen Steinhaus was Director of Performing Arts at Alcester Grammar School, in Warwickshire. During 2010 he moved to become Assistant Principal at Trinity Catholic School, a Specialists Arts and Technology College in Leamington Spa. He felt the project formed a strong fit with Trinity's aims, ethos, and tradition of community engagement, and with the full support of Principal Dr. Jim Ferguson, he took the project to Trinity with him. However, while in transition, in February 2010 he introduced a group of A2 drama students at Alcester Grammar School to the "Other People's Children" project, and to the possibility of putting together their final production based on the project and the holdings of the Archive and Study Centre. Hence the project has benefited from two dedicated student theatre troupes, and two, very different, productions.

 

4.11.1 Alcester Grammar School Troupe. Alcester, Warwickshire

In February and March 2010, the project director met with the Alcester Grammar School performing arts students at the school twice, and they paid two research visits to the Archive. On the first visit to the Archive they explored log books and other archival material. On the second occasion they met, and recorded an interview with project volunteer Emma Griffiths, who shared her experiences as a teenager and then as a volunteer who rose up to become a senior manager within the internationally-known Cotswold Community for emotionally and behaviourally disturbed boys.

 

Inspired by the work of the Filter Theatre Company and drawing on the conventions of docudrama and verbatim theatre, the Year 13 Performing Arts College students - Pip Kingscote Davies, Sophie Hill, Alice Barber, Anton Belmonte-Hewins and Isabel Arif - then researched, created, and performed the dramatic multi-media production “Other People’s Children” as their final A level piece on April 13th. The production, in the Alcester Grammar School main performance hall, incorporated interview recordings and archive material from the Archive collections, as well as projected slides of striking images painted by Emma Griffiths during her time at the Cotswold Community. The storyline drew very heavily on her life to explore the personal experiences of damage inflicted on individuals during childhood, and the places and people who try to help them. A DVD of the production was made available.

 

4.11.2 Trinity Catholic School Troupe. Leamington Spa, Warwickshire

a. Towards the Performance Archive "Weekend" (March 5-6, 2011)

The aim from the beginning of discussions between Stephen Steinhaus and the project director in 2008-2009 was to develop a troupe of performers who had a strong enough grasp of the archives and a deep enough knowledge and understanding of the personal stories of former children, staff and families of therapeutic communities, to be able to create a performance in virtually any space, tailored to virtually any audience - for staff in a current therapeutic community, for example, or for students in a school, or for performance in a library. Acquiring a grasp of archive materials would be relatively straightforward, with the resources of the Archive and help from project staff; and some stories would be available in the emerging project oral history transcripts. For a much deeper and more meaningful encounter with lives, memories and the consequences of experiences, however, it would be important for the students to meet and work with the people themselves.

 

The obvious solution within the framework of the project was to organise a specialised Archive "Weekend" devoted to performance, inviting Trinity students and staff and former members of therapeutic environments to meet together over several days to discuss, explore, share, record, and try out various performance scenarios. This would have the added benefit of meeting the wish, which had been expressed by a number of former children, to meet former children and staff of other Communities. A Performance Archive "Weekend" gave the opportunity of creating an occasion in which former members of different communities met one another in a "Weekend" residential setting for the first time, with their discovery of one another's schools and communities adding to the rich mix of the students' learning.

 

This "Weekend" took place on the Saturday and Sunday of March 5-6. In the end, Community members were resident, and Trinity students and staff travelled over from Leamington Spa each day. A number of Community members from different communities arrived during the day and stayed overnight on the Friday, beginning their discussions and the Archive "Weekend" on the 5th. Over the following two days sixteen Trinity students and three Trinity staff members took part. There were eleven former children and staff, and one family member, from four different project communities. Trainer Rib Davis conducted one-day "Transcript to Script" trainings with small groups of students on each of the two days, and two Trustees from P.E.T.T. also took part. The outcomes are described below and in 4.1.7 above, but the road to the Event, or the "Happening", as it came to be called, involved a considerable amount of preparation.

 

For students, their engagement with "Therapeutic Living With Other People's Children" began with a letter Stephen Steinhaus placed in the November 2010 issue of the Trinity School Newsletter:

 

Dear Year 10, 11 and 12 Students

 

Performance Project: Other People’s Children http://www.otherpeopleschildren.org.uk/

 

I am writing to invite you to join in an intense, innovative and exciting project based here at Trinity but touring next September. I am looking for a huge range of students to work on devising and creating an interactive, multi-media and multi-disciplinary performance piece based on the stories of children and staff from a number of care homes in the UK from 1930-1980. We will be working with stories that have, until now, remained largely untold. We will need everything from actors to technicians, designers, writers, historians, students of psychology, dancers, artists...even engineers!

We have been commissioned to produce the piece by the Planned Environment Therapy Trust and the project will require a serious commitment from you. We will initially meet every Thursday after-school from 3.30-4.30 but will also have a number of weekend and residential sessions as well as at least 3 days in the summer of 2011 preparing the piece.

 

If the project interests you please sign up with me by returning the slip below to me by Monday the 15th of November and attending the preliminary meeting at Lunch on Wednesday 17th November. Maybe even more importantly, come and see me about it...ask questions, check out the website above...Go, go, go!

 

I look forward to hearing from and working with you...this is the start of something big!

 

Best Regards, Stephen Steinhaus, Assistant Principal

 

Thirty students responded and began work. Project director Craig Fees and project oral historian Gemma Geldart visited Trinity after school on December 2nd to introduce the project to the students, and to learn what the students had been doing in their meetings so far. It was a lively meeting, with Stephen Steinhaus and participating staff member Mark Hetherington joining, and Principal Dr. Jim Ferguson visiting as well. The ultimate troupe of students narrowed slightly to 27.

 

Stephen Steinhaus then gave a comprehensive presentation to the Project Management Group meeting in Toddington on December 7th, describing Trinity Catholic School and the project's place within it, and giving an update on the students' progress and proposals.

 

He returned to the Archive on February 2nd to meet with the project team and to explore the resources and sources available. Because of their diversity, detail, and the degree to which they were already catalogued and accessible, project archivist Frances Meredith proposed focusing in the first instance on materials related to Red Hill School.

 

Stephen Steinhaus then returned with four students on February 9th. Two had a particular interest in creating music for the production, and the project team were able to produce a keyboard and a guitar, and projected some of Caldecott Community staff member Ley Melrose's recently digitised silent 8mm films onto a screen, to which the students improvised and explored musical themes and possibilities. A student with a particular interest in writing worked with transcripts. The fourth student, whose interest was focused on acting, watched several films, including the digitised 1954 BBC production of "The Unloved" which dramatises Red Hill School and has some scenes set within the school itself.

 

The project director and the project oral historian visited Trinity again on February 16th to conduct an all-day oral history training with eighteen students, as preparation for their active participation in the Performance Archive "Weekend" (see 4.6.1 for more detail). On the following day Director of Transition and Project Management Group Chair Richard Rollinson went to Trinity for his unique style of meaningful storytelling, using toys and other objects gathered during his extensive career in residential child care, and the stories bound up with each of the objects, to introduce a group of 25 students to the issues and experiences of residential child care.

 

On March 1st another group of four students came to the Archive with Stephen Steinhaus. In order to enrich the students' experience of therapeutic community people and places, and to allow them to see the Archive at work, we organised the visits of Hussein Lucas, Albert Lamb, and Jenelle Clark to coincide with their visit. Hussein Lucas had recently completed work on his book "After Summerhill: What happened to the pupils of Britain's most radical school?" published by Bristol Books and Publishers, and was depositing the oral history recordings and other raw materials for the book. Albert Lamb was himself a former student and staff member at Summerhill, and edited "The New Summerhill", collected writings of Summerhill founder A.S. Neill, published in 1992. Jenelle Clark was a researcher visiting to discuss a Ph.D. proposal to integrate her research with the work of the project (for which she was subsequently awarded an ESRC Ph.D. Fellowship).

 

This aggregate of visits was followed almost immediately by the "Weekend" itself, which included the usual pattern of starting, ending and punctuating each day with introductions and discussions in a large circle, and myriad other groups determined by participants, as well as the transcript to script trainings. Former Red Hill School student Peter Still went away and wrote, immediately on returning home:

 

As the weekend moved on, even the left-brainers like myself could see a process developing. We’d started out as (at least) 5 separate groups, but gradually merged into one. Interestingly that wasn’t happening by the communities coming together then merging with the students, but by each community bonding with the student group. The ‘thing’ had become known as the ‘happening’, a term I last used when I had a flowered shirt and flared cord jeans...

 

By the end of the weekend, after interviews both group and individual, discussions, roleplays, and seemingly endless ‘going round the circle and explaining what we’d learned so far’, we all had a much better idea of our role in The Happening, which now deserves capitalisation. Some people had to leave earlier than others to catch trains and so on, but nobody had walked out disappointed, and as well as the students some of the community members, including myself, wanted to remain involved. I’d started out a cynic and turned into a passionate enthusiast.

 

Now in her 80s, former Bodenham Manor staff member Pauline Weinstein spoke in the final summing-up circle of the success of the weekend's 'co-production'. A Trinity student commented: "whenever I heard the words 'maladjusted child' or 'disturbed child' or something, my mind just thought the worst of it, and thought 'oh it's some loony' or something. But when you meet all these people, they're just like us...I can see that connection between their generation and our generation, and they're so similar, and yet they're branded as something else. That's the biggest lesson I've learned today."

 

Remarks on the written feedback forms included, from former children: "I gained a greater understanding of present day adolescents. I find they were very little different to my adolescence." and "A quite enormous insight into the environmental communities of all the schools involved in the project." Two from the Trinity students: "I think we can use a lot of new information and contact links to make our 'happening' better and do these stories justice", and "I have learned so much about the project and heard lots of stories - Awesome"

 

Trainer Rib Davis, who not only conducted the transcript to script trainings but joined throughout the event wrote that it was "...a remarkable weekend - positively inspiring. It was not just a matter of the fact of what was going on, but the spirit of it, that was so impressive..."

 

b. Working Visit to Trinity Catholic School, June 16th

Following on from the successful Performance Archive "Weekend" in March, Trinity students requested another meeting, and on June 16th, seven former children and one partner, representing Aston House, Bodenham Manor, the Caldecott Community, the Mulberry Bush, Red Hill School, and Wennington, met after school with Assistant Principal Stephen Steinhaus and seven members of the performance group at the school in Leamington Spa. The aim was to renew discussions, bring new Community members into the group, present and review progress on the performance, record additional video footage, and tour and, for the Trinity students, to share Trinity School itself.

 

One of the Community participants, calling it "a great event" and "a great day", noted afterwards that

 

...in the middle of peak exam time it was impressive so many of the pupils stayed behind for our visit...It was a treat to have a guided tour by the pupils, whose enthusiasm for their fellows work was impressive.

 

They were very proud to be at the school, and delighted by our gasps of admiration at the extensive facilities they have access to.. ..As a group our purpose is as one to use our experiences for a wider audience to see that, we as a group have a lot to be thankful for the inspirators who started their very individual schools. Knowing that not one size fits all and individualism with help, can be channelled into new experiences and directions. The confidence and competence to join main stream society with an open minded approach to others.

 

Another wrote:

 

[The students] had 'got the message' and, clearly, had gone quite a long way to form a structure around which they would weave their story. Whether or not the production will work remains to be seen - I'm out of my depth here. I hope that they will invite us back to a rehearsal... As to the overall concept: today's generation, in their language, promoting the idea that early intervention in the lives of disturbed children will pay huge dividends is a great idea. If the Trinity concept works - gets that idea across - and they can travel around the Country spreading the message, then the achievement will be huge.

 

Red Hill School student Jeremy Bore emailed: "I did not want to leave on Thursday. The place felt so similar to Red Hill in so many ways. Very different in many ways, of course but still with an atmosphere redolent of vibrant creativity." For his more extended description of the visit, see Appendix 9.5.3

 

c. Sharing the work in progress

The first occasion the students had to share their work-in-progress was the project conference, built around the question of narrative and its use and implications. The second day of the conference was built around the performance (see conference programme, Appendix 9.4, and 4.12 below), with introduction by Stephen Steinhaus, a reflection on their experience as Community members by Red Hill old boys Ralph Gee and Peter Still, audience involvement, and a presentation of elements of the performance itself: An installation, a film, descriptive readings, original music, monologues and performance. Based on his thirty years in performance, Stephen Steinhaus commented later on the remarkable opportunity the performers were given to interact with their subjects and audience in a process of co-creation: A lively reflective discussion followed the students' offerings, and continued in letters and emails after the conference ended, as well as through an online questionnaire. Members from different communities present at the conference learned more about the wider landscape of children's communities from one another's comments and observations; and there were the fertilising perspectives of the variety of professionals and other delegates present.

 

The students took these rich and sometimes contradictory responses away, and a group of four returned to present revisions and new material during the Final Event. There was again a lively and engaged response, involving more members from all five focal communities. One of the students is writing a book of their experiences; it will be interesting to see this when it is completed.