Schools and Experimental Theatre

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IntroductionIn 2006, as part of my masters in Arts Management at Anglia Ruskin University, I undertook a research project, which involved Stan’s Cafe as a case study. The overall aim of the research was to explore the nature of the relationship between schools and experimental theatre companies and to encourage partnerships between these two seemingly strange bedfellows.

Before you shout “experimental theatre, what’s that supposed to mean?”, I used the label to explain, to the uninitiated, a broad category of theatre and spent a chapter defining my terms, which I won’t bore you with here.

I looked at three theatre companies, Stan’s Cafe, Bodies in Flight and Filter, and examined their position in relation to schools, in order to investigate the fruits and potential fruits of relationships between schools and experimental theatre companies.

The study focused on specific projects in order to develop a deeper understanding about the meanings that people place on their experience of arts projects in schools. The research questions revolved around abstract terms: motivation, aims, effective practice, benefits, all of which are, to a greater or lesser degree, open to interpretation. Accordingly, each project was examined from the different points of view of the parties directly involved (teachers, pupils, artists and funding partners) in order to draw out emerging themes, shared meanings and implications for future practice.

The key findings of the research centred on the benefits witnessed in the case studies, benefits to both the theatre companies and the schools. For theatre companies, education work with schools was shown to be advantageous to the overall development of the company, raising profile, contributing to stability and longevity, and broadening artistic opportunity. For schools, teachers valued the opportunity to work with the range of artists that came in one package within an experimental company, and pupils responded to new experiences in positive and unforeseen ways.

The key message to arts organisations, experimental theatre companies and schools was that the pairing of experimental theatre companies and schools can be extremely productive on a number of levels, from the practical to the strategic. The ongoing challenge is to sustain the diversity of relationships that schools andcreative practitioners currently enjoy and part of that process is to continue to prove the value and worth of such partnerships.

Case Study: Stan’s CafeThis is a summary of my case study of Stan’s Cafe’s School Rulers project, a Creative Partnerships residency at Castle Vale School, developed with the Creative Arts teacher, Jane Crowther. Stan’s Cafe worked with Jane and two Year 8 groups during their weekly art lessons to produce ten pieces of art looking at what the students wanted to change about their school. The results were displayed in the school and a book was produced to accompany the project. The following data was collected through in-depth face-to-face interviews with James Yarker from Stan’s Cafe and Jane Crowther from Castle Vale School. A questionnaire was completed by 15 of the pupils who participated in the project (38 per cent).

In the past decade, initiatives such as Creative Partnerships have opened upopportunities for collaborations between schools and creative practitioners. Castle Vale is a Creative Partnerships school in a pioneering Creative Partnerships area. The school expressed a commitment to developing relationships with professional artists in the school development plan.

Stan’s Cafe has had links with schools from its inception and has a high education profile and a strong identity in its local environment. The company sees work with schools as a means of both artistic and social development.

The aims of the project were developed by the school and communicated to Stan’s Cafe. They could be described as “client-centred aims’, but also related to the aims of the company in terms of providing creative opportunities and attracting funding. The aims were:
o To raise the profile of two Year 8 forms within their whole year
o To raise the expectations of the pupils involved
o To inject them with confidence and self-esteem.
The teacher thought that the aims of the project were achieved and exceeded. The profile of the pupils was raised not only within their year, but across the whole school.

In response to the question about how the educational aims related to the artistic aims, the company stated that “they are almost indistinguishable.’ Both are about exploring new ideas, making stuff that is exciting, challenging and provocative. We never think about education work as being lesser or dumbed down in any way. We see it as collaborating with different people.

Effective Practice
o The project was planned by the company in response to the aims outlined above, in partnership with the teacher, who advised on what was possible within the school context.

Resources and skills:
o The company and the teacher considered the relationship with Creative Partnershipsas fundamental to getting a project of this scale off the ground.
o The company drew on the collective skills and experience of the artists involved in the delivery of the project.
o The company believed that the role of the artists was different to that of the teacher and that the teacher was a valuable presence during the residency.
o The company added that a designated space for the project to work from would have added value to the experience. The difficulty of finding extra space in schools was acknowledged.

o The teacher stated that the number and range of artists involved in the project was a valuable resource:One thing I liked about Stan’s Cafe was that there were so many different people who came in as part of the project, there was always one personality that worked well with one pupil.
o This school had experience of arts projects and a supportive head teacher.

o Creative Partnerships funded the project and allocated additional funding for documentation.

o The legacy of the project is that some of the changes implemented in the school during the residency have remained, including the reovamped school dining room andthe distorting mirrors. The teacher believes that this has made a longer lasting impact on the school and possibly on the pupils.
o All parties said that the book that was published as documentation added value to the project. Every participant was given a copy of the book to keep.
James Yarker noted:
The book taught me a massive lesson. I think we would always now produce something like the book. We were taken aback by the budget for the book, which seemed really high in proportion to the whole budget. But having seen the book, the object and the effect of the object, I think the project would have evaporated without the book. It gives the project visibility, status and longevity.

Benefits to the company
o The success of the project led to a Creative Partnerships contract with a ‘cluster’ of 5 schools in Birmingham.
o The company’s profile was raised both locally and nationally. Stan’s Cafe has since worked with other Creative Partnerships areas and has given lectures and presentations to teachers and academics.

o The company’s view of school arts projects as creative opportunities has contributed to their increased confidence to take on arts projects that are not necessarily drama oriented.

Benefits to the teacher
o The teacher valued opportunities to get out of the classroom.
o The teacher gained confidence to work in less traditional ways.
o Working with professional artists was inspiring.
o Seeing children working in different environments with different people challengedher preconceptions:
The ones I thought wouldn’t get involved did things and the ones who are usually involved were suddenly standing back a bit more.

Benefits to the pupils:
As perceived by the company:
The company only felt equipped to comment on the physical changes that occurredas a result of the project, namely, the permanent change to the dining room and the fact that the children had a book to keep as a record of what they had done:
We hope they might keep the book forever as something good they did at school.

As perceived by the teacher:
o The credibility of the pupils involved in the project was raised amongst the other pupils, who witnessed some of the effects of the work.
o The project set challenges and the pupils had the satisfaction of succeeding in meeting their objectives.
o The message they learned was that “nothing is impossible,’ and that it is worth asking for change:
Some of the pupils have gone on to join the school council and they might not have seen the point of doing that before. It’s good that they’re having a say.
o They experienced a sense of adventure, excitement and fun.
o The pupils learned new ways of exploring ideas and putting them into practice.
o They were given alternative opportunities to excel:
That’s what Creative Partnerships should be for those pupils to excel where you might not normally have thought about them doing that.

Key points arising from the pupil questionnaire
Fifteen pupils (38 per cent of the total number of pupils that participated in the project) completed a questionnaire designed to find out what they thought that they had gained from the project. The pupils were invited to judge different aspects of the project and the following information is drawn from their responses.

What the pupils liked about the project:
o 40 per cent of the respondents said they liked what they made during the project.
o One third of pupils said that they liked the changes they made to the school.
o One fifth of pupils said that they liked doing something different.
o One pupil said: I enjoyed the way we were able to create our own timetable the way we wanted.

What they didn’t like about the project:
o 80 per cent of respondents said there was nothing they didn’t like.
o Things they didn’t like were clearing up and one pupil said: I didn’t get to take part in a lot.

What the pupils learned from the project:
o Almost half of the pupils said that they had learned how they could change things, with comments such as: I learned how our say can change how the school looks, and, Things can be changed. Nothing is impossible.
o One fifth reported that they had learned about working together.
o One fifth said that they had learned how to make things in different ways,for example: We learned to make exciting stuff.
o One pupil said: I learned that things can be way out.

Would they do it again:
o All of the respondents said that they would like to do this sort of project again.
o One pupil said that it should be an annual event.
o One said that more classes should participate.

Further comments:
o When invited to make any further comments, over half of the respondents mentioned fun and enjoyment.
o One fifth of pupils commented on the book. Comments included:
The booklet is really, really good and I’ve still got mine.
I think that the book at the end showed off all the different projects rolled into one.
I liked seeing the work in the book which looked really nice.

Conclusions and Recommendations.
The conclusions that I drew from my research were based on this case study and two others. My conclusions focused on three areas: motivation and aims, effective practice, and benefits, and led to the following main recommendations:

o It has been seen that education work with schools is advantageous to the overall development of companies. Experimental theatre companies should take a strategic approach to developing their links with larger organisations involved in creative education (e.g. Creative Partnerships), in order to increase the range of opportunities open to them. Educational opportunities are also artistic opportunities and the artistic vision of experimental theatre companies is enhanced, rather than compromised, by the right educational partnerships.
o Experimental theatre companies have shown that a well-funded, creative approach to documentation is rewarding on a number of levels (artistic, educational, proving worth, sustaining momentum) and it is recommended that education projects should always include a budget for high quality documentation.
o The strategy of experimental theatre companies should include a more proactive approach to making arts organisations and schools aware of the particular value that they represent. It has been shown that the diverse range of artists and associate artists collaborating within one company means that a diverse range of skills and expertise is available, which can be adapted to meet the needs of schools on a number of levels. Although it would not be sensible to impose any form of conformity on the education work of companies, a dialogue between experimental artists could prove valuable, so that their contribution to education is more broadly recognised.

Concluding Remarks The overall aim of my study was to investigate the nature of the relationship between schools and experimental theatre companies. The three companies involvedin the study represented a range of educational aims and models of partnership. However, they were united by their demonstration of the same high level of commitmentto education work as to their artistic practice, and proved that partnerships are advantageous to all concerned in a number of ways. The case studies provided examplesof good practice, not only for other experimental artists but for all artists working with schools.

The key message to arts organisations, experimental theatre companies and schools is that collaborations between experimental theatre companies and schools are extremely fruitful, and ways of bringing the two together should continue to been couraged, pursued and sustained.

Looking back at my research project, one of the key findings that I would like to explore further concerns the ‘value’ of the documentation of school arts projects. I discovered from the School Rulers residency that good quality documentation, planned and executed as part of the project, can be a creative outcome in its own right, adding lasting value and contributing to the legacy of the work.

Since completing my MA, my own work has developed into the area of arts marketing and audience development, but it is still the connections between the arts and education that draw my attention and keep my interest in work alive. The difference that the arts can make to the lives of children, young people and disadvantaged communities is only achievable through the dedicated hard work of companies like Stan’s Cafe, who are prepared to go out and make that difference, refusing to compromise on quality, and continuing to treat all their collaborators as fellow artists.

By Katherine Porter, June 2008
With thanks to James Yarker, Jane Crowther and the pupils of Castle Vale School.