When young musician Declan McKenna performed on Jools Holland’s Later programme on BBC2 recently, Declan’s teeshirt spoke louder than the lyrics of his song, with a plea in black on white: “Give 17-year-olds the vote.”
It was a simple appeal for young people to be heard and taken seriously. Paul Morrall, Director of Education, Training and Outreach at theatre company Chickenshed, has spent his life trying to achieve the same aim, giving children and young people a platform to be heard. Not by standing on a soapbox and shouting – much more powerful than that. By acting, singing and dancing. By entertaining others and helping them to unlock their personalities in as many diverse ways as possible.
Paul may not be able to persuade parliamentarians to give young people like Declan the vote at 17, but he can help them to express themselves and to speak out about the injustice, hardship, trauma and the myriad issues that plague young people in 21st century Britain.
For Paul, Chickenshed is the vehicle that helps elevate those voices. First created in 1974, the company has been offering succour and support to young people ever since. Back then, musician and composer Jo Collins and teacher/director Mary Ward shared a similar belief in harnessing the creativity in everyone. So they started an alternative theatre company and the first performance was in a chicken shed (hence the name). The idea was to help celebrate diversity and inspire positive change through theatre and dance.
Paul explains: “The problem is that the mainstream voice is always the one that’s heard – and people who have the most power in the mainstream are the adults. So young people are marginalised.
“You have to turn things on its head. You need to abandon the words of the mainstream. The people of the mainstream define the world in a segregated way. Teachers, professionals, everyone does this to manage things easier. To compartmentalise everything. The government also does this and reacts against inclusivity.”
At Chickenshed, collaboration and inclusivity are key to helping capture the voices of children and young people. Paul continues: “Here we have everyone from mainstream education to special schools; children from pupil referrals units; from the care system; children with communication problems and physical needs.
“All of this keeps them separate, segregated, but we create an environment that brings them altogether. Everyone feels included. We help young people who have been separate from everything and give them a sense of how they can contribute to other people positively.
“Some kids have had only 90 days in education and then drift around the borough. No one takes responsibility for them. Mainstream education implies exclusion. So mainstream education misses out on those people missing from that school. Children are then missing out on learning with these other people. So the teaching and those being taught are learning in an unreal situation.”
The Chickenshed approach is to include everyone with every type of ability and disability. The more varied the better: “We believe everyone has to see themselves represented in performing arts. Until recently, for example, we weren’t attracting children from care backgrounds. So we now make a point of going to those agencies and we have lots of kids from different care backgrounds.
“We go into schools and reach out to children. With capturing the voices of children and young people, this will always change as children change. It also changes our perspective on how to create and educate; it’s never finished; it’s progress.”
With its ever changing troupe of actors, dancers and singers, Chickenshed tours schools and colleges putting on shows that can be a tough ask on its young audience. Crime of the Century, for example, is a true story about knife crime in London. It is also personal for Paul and Chickenshed.
It was written about Paul’s 14-year-old nephew Shaquille who was stabbed to death one night in a random knife attack by a gang near his home. Shaquille had acted with Chickenshed along with his cousin Daniel Banton. The play was written from personal experience about the murder, but also to highlight the increasing problem of gang violence and knife crime in London.
Crime of the Century creates the drama of Shaquille’s murder and those of other victims through dance, rap, projections and texts. Above all, the victim himself is allowed to speak out and be heard. “Shall I tell you what I’m going to be when I grow up? Nah, you’re not interested, I’ll tell you later,” Shaquille says. Of course, he never has the chance to explain.
Paul continues: “This was very personal to me. A personal story connected with a lot of other personal stories. About the mum whose son never comes home. About the boy who kills someone and his family. It’s to highlight such tragedies, but it’s not meant to be preaching. With theatre you have to entertain and educate. You can’t hector and lecture.
“Above all, it poses questions that children can ask and think about. We take this production to schools and children watch in total silence. It really moves them, helps them debate and gives them a voice to express their ideas and concerns. It’s hugely empowering.
“It’s so important to capture the voices of children and young people. We like to give everyone the right tools to make and form an opinion. That’s what’s exciting about it. We use that to educate, and use empathy and entertainment. Children need to be engaged in it and need to engage with it.
“That’s Chickenshed; it’s what we do.”
That’s also why Chickenshed recently joined forces with children safeguarding partnership Shared Vision and their Voice of the Child (#VOC) campaign.
“Shared Vision are like us. They’re pushing boundaries; we both address the same issues and look for the same outcomes.”
Shared Vision’s Marisa De Jager wants their #VOC campaign to give children and young adults a platform to talk about their problems and concerns to a wider audience. The focus on listening to their views is a crucial part of their events – and dovetails with the ideas of Chickenshed around inclusivity and engagement. To this end, Shared Vision is using different social media networks and live streaming to engage with professionals and young people alike.
Marisa: “It’s vitally important that we capture the voice of the child to hear what these young people are saying about themselves and their surroundings. We need to involve them in all issues of safeguarding, from child sexual exploitation and FGM to drugs, gangs and domestic violence. They need to feel included, not excluded, from society and the decisions that affect their lives.”
With Gwenton Sloley, Shared Vision is also visiting schools to highlight the problems of gangs and knife crime. Again, an issue that Paul and Chickenshed address with Crime of the Century.
Gwenton will be talking more about this in our next blog.
In the year April 2015 to April 2016, the Metropolitan Police reported more than 9,000 knife crime incidents in London alone. Of these, 1,623 victims under the age of 25, including 866 teenagers. Twelve were knifed to death. London’s Air Ambulance service said 30% of the incidents they attended were due to knife crime. They see at least one incident a week and now often practice open heart surgery on the streets of London to save people’s lives. Such methods are generally used in war zones.
Andrew Chilvers was talking to Paul Morrall