I’ve been acting since I was 8.
Well actually, it’s since I was 7, but I’ve tried as much as I can to erase the memories of 3rd Shepherd from the left from my memory. It was a non speaking role and I’ve never been a fan of historical drama anyway. No- it was in an ensemble piece focussing on the destructive force of the monarchy and their supression of the ‘little man’. I played Sleepy.
I remember being responsible for a key moment in the piece, the discovery of the beautiful princess, half eaten apple in hand, laid helplessly on the assembly hall floor. The direction from Mrs Doherty was simple. Come in, look shocked, point and say your line. “Look! What has happened to Snow White?”. I duly obeyed.
We completed the scene. They clapped, we bowed – I went home feeling nearly four feet tall. And of course, I had the bug. 23 years later I’m now in Mrs Doherty’s shoes. (Metaphorically anyway, foot fetishes involving the shoes of middle aged women will have to wait for another day). I am now a teacher of drama highlighting to others the importance of pointing in the right direction and creating dramatic climactic pauses. “Sharp intake of breath kids. you’ve seen something shocking!”
And I get paid for it, which is great – but I’m also in a very privileged position. Many of my colleagues who teach ‘real’ subjects – their quote not mine – are on the way home at 3.15, armed with a stack of books and a national curriculum tucked under their arm. They mark, they plan, they deliver fantastic results, well in general anyway.
But for me and the other arts staff in school, the day really only gets going when the car park starts to clear. That’s when the magic happens. The dance studio downstairs turns up the volume, the music department open up their doors and craft club digs the PVA glue & the glitter out from its special hiding place (if Year 10 were to get hold of it during the regular school day there would be chaos…). And the drama department? Well depending on what day of the week you pop in, you’ll see something very different. At any one time I’m lucky enough to be overseeing around ten different groups, devising or rehearsing their little hearts out.
My Year 11′s whose GCSE exam is fast approaching is an excellent example – I’ve got one group creating a piece about the effects on some characters of a fictional earthquake hitting Britain, another is devising a murder mystery piece involving a man who gets consumed by the guilt of killing his ex girlfriend. A third group is looking at how their central character chases his dream of being a footballer, only to find out that he has lost his family and friends along the way. All powerful stuff.
The exam is fast approaching and in eight or so weeks they will be very nervous, I’ll be very proud and they will be leaving the room at the end of it all buzzing as much as I did when I played my show stopping dwarf all those years ago. And it will be the same feeling for the violinist who finally makes it through her grade 2 exam, or for the dancer who lands that turn he’s been practising for weeks. Who knows there may be a Year 7 who manages to pluck up the courage to give that Valentines card he made to that girl with the locker next door. Pride, Achievement, Ambition, superlative, superlative…
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m no Kenneth Brannagh. Very few of my current batch of ‘darlings’ are going to be on your TV screens anytime soon, if ever. Most are not looking for a career in the industry and the ones that do want a life ‘performing’ are statistically more likely to end up doing my job in just a few years time. But one thing is certain – they have a direction.
Two nights of theatre darling
Luckily, the arts are very much keeping their head above water in this troubled Britain of ours. (Notice – troubled – not broken…stop doing us down Dave!). In my own field of drama, I have seen very clearly in the space of two days just how alive the industry is, despite the financial squeeze. On Thurday night I visited the Royal Exchange in Manchester to see SALT, a new play by Fiona Peek. The building itself is a hub for middle class drammies and socialites to sit, relax and be well…middle class. Ironically (maybe), the play itself was about two couples discussing what a struggle it is to pay for their dinner parties and to fund that novel they’ve never quite finished. Being well within the boundaries of that target audience I spent an evening being comfortable, laughing politely at the jokes and then duly went to Tampopo for my dinner, fiercely debating the writing and the themes of the piece.
I may like the idea of being a revolutionary , but I can still revel in my own particular stereotype when I need to.
24 Hours later, I was sitting in what we at school call “the crows nest”, nervously flicking through a script from a local community theatre group called “The Green Room”. Based in Shadsworth, Blackburn the kids from the group had put together a show based on various pieces of poetry and I was in charge of their lighting and sound. Just to set a context, Shadsworth is one of those pockets of Britain that regularly appears at the bottom of league tables when it comes to assessing wealth & opportunity. One colleague of mine described it as being in the bottom 5% of the bottom 5%. It’s not a statistic to be proud of, but it does set up a fairly stark contrast to my night of kitchen sink drama and Indonesian Tofu – (which I would like to point out, was a bit rubbery, I wouldn’t recommend it)
The kids of course were great, getting a massive round of applause at the shows climax. Yes the 7 year olds were a bit quiet. (Makes you wonder how effective my pointing and gasping was all those years ago…)Yes the odd kid forgot a line or two. Even the drama teacher who has done this a squillion times before missed a sound cue. (Sorry!!) But for the audience of proud families who had been dragged out on a cold February night, it created the biggest set of smiles. It brought them all together to support their kids and they all went away with that cosy feeling I had on Thursday night when the ‘professionals’ did their turn.
But is it all just frivolity? Surely in times like these we should be focussing on being realistic and cutting back to sort out the nations ‘real’ problems? Or could it be that the wooly world of the arts might just be a part of the solution?
The politicians have been scrambling around for some sort of ‘social glue’ for a while now and they are (mistakenly I think) convinced that its about popularity. If they are ‘down with the kids’ and claim to know about X factor or Strictly then we’re all in this together. (Untangle that as a mixed metaphor!). If you believe I watch what you watch, then you’ll let me tell you what to do and not complain about it. Why on earth was our Scottish Prime Minister commenting on the future of the England football captain this week? You can draw you’re own conclusions, but he won’t be cashing in his season ticket at Raith Rovers anytime soon as a consequence.
This tactic doesn’t get people out of their houses to be social. It won’t get neighbours talking to each other again, it won’t stop kids dropping litter or joining gangs because they need to feel wanted. It won’t stop people distrusting the woman at the end of the street because she has her face covered up and it definitely won’t inspire anyone to walk to a polling station when its raining on that fateful day in May.
Is the arts the magic dust to fix it? No, not on it’s own. But it can help. If your participating or watching, you’re there, with other people and (Abe Lincoln aside) very few people ever got shot in a theatre. There is a sense of community, similar (although not as tribal) as you get when attending a football match. The department of Culture, Media & Sport may just be a bigger player in this age of dourness that those at the top are so keen to shout about recently.
The Lib Dems this week launched the power of creativity a new set of proposals designed to encourage work across the creative elements of our society. They’re not magic dust, but they are a more positive proposal than what is currently on the table. (Which as I can see it largely consists of putting our fingers in our ears and shouting la la la until it all goes away). Will it be pushed as a major electoral drive – possiblty not, it’s very difficult to walk the electoral tightrope with a subject generally regarded as ‘wooly’ as the arts. But it does form a good grounding for a decent policy on social cohesion and shouldn’t be ignored. It might not be a headline grabber like mansion taxes or upping pay for the armed forces, but things that really are effective are usually much quieter, softer events anyway. Wooly if you will.
Lib Dem Leader Nick Clegg said at the launch of the proposals “A Liberal believes in the raucous, unpredictable capacity of people” - I think it says something about me that he was in context talking about creative practioners and I take it as somewhat of a compliment. My desk may not always be the tidiest, but my golly I know how to get a room of teenagers to sit up and listen if they’ve got the Monday morning blues.
Follow the yellow brick road (political and arty – now he IS clever…)
And so I leave you till next time. Tommorrow I’m seeing two versions of Hamlet (with swords this week – gulp) and three seperate news reports about celebrities who have fallen from grace. Oh and I’m getting ready to help cast a production of the Wizard of Oz. Giving out scripts to a hundred wannabe Dorothy’s. Only one pair of Ruby Slippers though I’m afraid girls…
It will be unpredictable (possibly raucous), and it will definitely be hard work, but one thing is for certain – they’ll go out with a more positive frame of mind than the one they came in with.
So everyone will be a winner.