Hello, my name is Don MacDonald and I am the new Project Coordinator for Troupe. I am so honoured to have become part of the Curious Monkey Team, who create innovative theatre in partnership with groups whose voices are often underrepresented in society (young people who are care experienced and refugee/asylum seekers). My recent experience of being on the road with the autumn tour of the ‘Leaving’ extracts and ‘360 Film’ has consolidated what I was already thinking about – that Curious Monkey is at the forefront of making ground breaking, participatory and challenging art.
First leg- Rehearsals
Arriving at Derby Theatre I instantly got a great feeling about what was to come. Theatre, which can be sometimes be perceived as a middle-class pursuit and ‘not for everyone’ is instantly challenged by the location of this venue which is at the heart of a shopping centre in the centre of town. As well making inclusive theatre they also stage events like the one I was attending – Culture Cares, an annual conference organised by care leavers which aims to celebrate the positive impact arts and culture has on the lives of young people in and leaving care.
I landed to find the young members of Troupe rehearsing their curtain raiser performance – ‘I am Sam’. This was a short play that Troupe had written in conjunction with Plus One, Derby theatre company that works with young people with care experienced. I was amazed to find out that when the Curious Monkey and Plus one had last performed this in March, they hadn’t written down the script anywhere. It was hard to tell that this was a performance that both groups had recreated from memory, especially as some of the young people involved had never performed it before. I was so impressed to see how supportive the actors from the cast of ‘Leaving’ were in helping the young people remember their lines and synchronise their actions.
Taking some time out in the nearby food court, I was able to ‘break bread’ with the young people from Troupe and one of their residential support workers over some KFC and Subway. It provided a great opportunity to get to know them better, build their trust as the new comer to the team and find out more about their prior involvement in Curious Monkey.
In the afternoon, the young people did a dress rehearsal of their short play on the stage. It was such a bright and epic space, and it felt strange for us to be in there when it was so empty. Watching them act on stage, it was mind-blowing to think that some of the young people had never acted before, let alone appeared on a stage before earlier this day.
The day was finished off by the a much-needed pizza, allowing the actors and young people to socialise with one another, building the relationships whilst gorging on melted cheese and tomato.
Day 2 - Derby Culture Cares Conference
Arriving at the theatre I met with Iain Gray, the film maker who had made the 360 film about leaving care which we were here to premiere at the conference. The young people from Troupe and myself clubbed in to get the equipment ready for this experience. Whilst I had no doubt that the film would provide a high impact for those who were going to watch the film through the mobile phone driven virtual reality goggles, I was less confident on the technology working the way we wanted it to. so, we worked collectively to iron out any potential glitches that might occur.
Both the extract from Leaving and our curtain raiser ‘I am Sam’ were well received and the performances by our young people were flawless as they slotted in seamlessly with the professional actors on the stage.
I headed up with the young people to supervise delegates from the conference trying out our 360 film, ensuring that each participant was sitting comfortably as we placed the virtual reality visors on their heads. It was fascinating to watch the young people who had helped to inform the content of this film, now staff and support the screening of the premier. It was so interesting to see the participants unknowingly gawping at one another in the real world as their vision was immersed in a virtual world of a young person having to deal with the challenges and rejections of leaving care. People leaving the experience, who ranged from social workers and foster carers to representatives from funding bodies seemed blown away by the experience and dropped a range of written feedback in the ‘leaving home’ rucksacks provided.
After lunch we had the pleasure of hearing a talk by poet Lemn Sissay MBE, who was brought up in the care system. His rambling and at times jokingly confrontational style was fascinating to watch. Though he spoke for over an hour, I could have listened to him all day- his straight talking spoke volumes at this conference as he was articulating an experience shared by a number of people in the room. He in particular he repeated the line ‘When I was in care, the first thing I wanted was a hug, it was the last thing that I got.’ He stressed the importance of love as being too often something forgotten about in the care system and the discourse around it.
Later the young people from Troupe sat on a panel alongside Amy Golding, the Artistic Director of Curious Monkey and Alix and Sam from Plus One. They took questions about the benefits of theatre and involving young people with care experience. It was great to see how empowered the young people were in answering questions and reflecting on their own experiences of creative engagement.
Heading the bill at the Barnardo’s Scotland Care Journeys Conference –our early morning performance of ‘Leaving’ certainly made an impact, with exerts serving as the impetus for discussion throughout the day. There were a few technical issues when one of our actors was unable to get a playback of the dialogue, he was due to speak, using the recorded delivery method. The actors were excellent at improvising in the moment and bringing a bit of humour to the situation till the stage manager was able to rectify the situation. It seems there may be a difficulty when performing this play in a theatre deep underground when using radio equipment.
The show was followed by a Q&A with Amy and the young people who had helped to research and inform the writing of the play. They charted their journey with Troupe and Curious Monkey as well as their experiences with the care system.
Later, we continued to engage care professionals, care leavers and policy makers using our 360 film. Some of the delegates were extremely affected by the experience and felt it gave them a much broader understanding of some of the traumatic issues that care leavers have to deal with when moving into independent living.
The afternoon was filled with an extensive debate which covered a multitude of issues including the care review, the role of corporate parents and the barriers that prevent foster parents being involved in the lives of young people after they leave their care. Again, the theme of love that was brought up in regards to the relationships between young people and carers/and social workers. It was felt that this needs to be a much more prevalent part of the care system. The feeling we took from the Scottish system, what while still rife with challenges was overall more progressive that its English counterpart.
The day was ended with a nice meal in an Italian Café, with the actors and young people sharing food, discussing the day and sharing their love of musical theatre.
Friday 2nd November
St James Park, Newcastle
Back in Newcastle for the last leg of the tour at the North East Children in Care Council Conference, we set up shop in a break away room, tucked away near the top stands of our local football stadium. It was great setting up the 360-film installation in a room that backed onto gleaming turf of Newcastle United’s football pitch. Again, the young people supported participants to try out the VR experience, involving everyone from care leavers to the Head of Newcastle City Council’s Children Services.
In the afternoon, the actors performed the Leaving extracts one last time. This was real challenge as they were acting it in a brightly lit conference suite and not a theatre like they were accustomed to. The highlight for me was watching one of the actors perform a particular character right in front of the real person it was based on. There was a real magic in watching art imitate real life right in front of my eyes in real time.
Overall a great week, which gave me an insight into the lives of young people with care experience, the bureaucracy of the system as well as the amazing people trying to change it for the better.