Hope at the end of the world

Sarah facilitating a workshop at a theatre with young people

I spent last week running the Belgrade Theatre’s Summer School for 42 committed and inspiring young people aged 8-16 with local dancer Jonathan Armstrong, who is currently working with Coventry Youth Dance to encourage more young men to dance and move.

We are experienced in very different areas so I was excited to see what we could learn from each other whilst creating a Physical Theatre piece together but I was nervous about working with someone for the first time with an aim to share the work on the last day for parents, carers and Belgrade Staff, all in just five days.

It felt exciting to be back in the Belgrade building, I haven’t had a chance to return since I was part of their Community and Education tour of Chris Cooper’s ‘Promise’ in 2008 and 2009. My time at Belgrade Theatre has shaped a lot of my career; I was introduced to Chris Cooper, who, still now is my Creative Mentor. Back then, he was my Writer and Director and has since supported me writing my own work and introduced me to Bondian methodology which has since shaped my entire practice. Walking through those studio doors brought back excellent memories of being in my 20s filled with nerves and excitement. Now, I had the same feeling going back as an artist, tutor and role model. It felt pretty special.

We spent our first day all together getting to know each other and thinking about stories to explore. We asked the group to place their ideas into a large melting pot for us to start creating a piece. The common thread between each of their ideas was ‘survival’. We explored survival in terms of a natural disaster, being on the poverty line, and even day to day existence. What do we need to survive in the world?

With such a huge question, range of experience and a large number of young people with personal challenges, exploring our ideas physically through devising gave the group a freedom, which many of them expressed that they wouldn’t be able to do with dialogue. We agreed on using the idea of the end of the world, with good vs evil; superheroes and villains both mystical and political.

Sarah performing Declaration, engaging audience

Students laughing while they work in equalities workshop

For Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday we delved into ideas and began to prepare a story. We split the group in half (ages 8-10 and 11-16) with the plan to work on set aspects of the story that would all fit together as a whole. As we began to create, the 11-16 year olds put together some prose to accompany the piece, which became our programme for the performance:

It was a regular Friday, like any other

The sun rose and shone down on us

It was the beginning of the end.

The sky turned black

Nowhere to go. Nowhere to hide.

The world crumbled

Panic rose, people fled.

Chaos. Jeopardy. Screams of horror.

Bodies, blood and mayhem

The world was in despair.

Everyone I knew, everyone I love.

Souls, lost and found

Pure evil was born, rising from the rubble.

A hand from the grave

Rising from beyond

A creature of darkness.

Terror struck. He was unstoppable

Spreading darkness and misery

Crushing good to the ground

Pulling children into a distorted reality 

Making them his own.

No-one is safe.

What will you grab?

Who will you save?

Watch. As we become heroes, searching for the key to surviving the world.

On Thursday afternoon we started to put all the pieces together, like a jigsaw. By Friday we were rehearsed and ready for an audience. Through the week the group worked incredibly as a team and supported each other at every step. When someone needed help, they practiced. When someone needed to slow it down, we did. When someone needed to run the whole thing for the fifteenth time in a row, they gladly pulled together. They were a wonderful group of considerate, supportive, talented and committed young artists who had fully invested themselves in their work.

The performance was superb and I felt a huge amount of pride as each of them pushed themselves to give the work their absolute all. Afterwards, as we were presented with thank you cards I felt saddened that it had all come to and end. Being a freelance artist opens up a world of opportunities, but the down side for me is that you may never work with them them again and so you don’t have the opportunity to continue to see them grow in skill and confidence. Even within those five days I noticed a positive difference and was even told by a couple of parents that having a creative week has made a “life-changing difference” to their confidence. Sometimes, when you’re working to deadlines, overwhelmed by a full inbox and up to your eyes in meetings you can very easily forget, momentarily, the power of the arts. A week like this definitely reminds you of how important it is to explore the world through your imagination, and why I absolutely love doing what I do. I might not get to go on holiday every year or travel the world but seeing those 42 young people grow in confidence and explore their world creatively, to me, is worth a dozen holidays, even to the Caribbean.

An empty stage with a spotlight on it