RICHARD HAYHOW, Theatre Director, Open Theatre and JO TROWSDALE, Centre for Education Studies, Warwick talk about how their work together led to learning for both partners and significant developments in Richard's theatre work with young people and school teachers, and in turn has led to a symposium, journal articles and a research funding bid.
JO: I was a regular attender of Arts Alive – a festival largely of Coventry based independent theatre companies - and there saw the work of The Shysters. Richard was their founder and director. Their work was so joyful, playful and challenged perceptions about what actors with learning disabilities could achieve. A few years later I was approached to report on a three-year partnership experiment (called ‘Something Wicked’) between the Belgrade theatre and seven independent theatre companies – the Shysters was one of them. As I witnessed work and interviewed artists, I got insights into the practice and especially into how Richard was enabling these young people to develop as actors and as people, as well as to engage and entertain others.
RICHARD: The ‘Something Wicked’ work gave me the opportunity to reflect on the development of the Shyster practice and in many ways to legitimise it as a valid theatre practice that could sit alongside that of the other theatre companies involved. The approach to creating theatre with the Shysters had always been driven by the desire to make high quality productions: over a period of five years leading up to Something Wicked many ways of working were tried and tested, with some rejected, in order to achieve this. The basic principles of non-verbal physical work created in response to pre-recorded music (acting in effect as the ‘script’) were developed and explored in this period. The young people were able to lead much of the creative process through their intimate engagement with this way of working. An aesthetic for the work began to grow and the actors themselves became highly skilled within this. Perhaps the most significant statement made about the company at the time was: ‘ The Shysters are great actors – but they are also great people’. A process that had been developed to create high quality theatre had inadvertently had a transformatory effect on the actors themselves.
JO: In 2004 I was appointed Creative Director for Creative Partnerships Coventry and as I met with Deedmore MLD Special Primary school’s head teacher and heard her explain her ambition for her children, I was reminded of Richard. I bumped into Richard at another Coventry Arts event and he was talking about the desire to develop a longer term relationship with schools where he might see if the Shyster practice introduced with younger children might affect similar changes and give them a better chance in society. I arranged for the two of them to meet -a six year year long relationship was born between Richard and Deedmore, now joined with an SLD school and renamed Castlewood.
RICHARD: I remember that conversation well. I had learnt two important things from the Shyster process – firstly the work needed time to achieve its effect – on both the quality of the acting and the theatre created, and on the impact on the people involved. Secondly the younger the person involved the more significant the impact you could have. I had also worked in special schools at various times before this but only on one-off projects – but perhaps the best comment from one of these schools had been that the project we had developed had not been a ‘dumbed-down version of a mainstream project’ but had been ideally suited to the particular students involved. I was therefore keen to work in a primary special school to explore these ideas further – and as such made it clear from the outset that I would only become involved in Creative Partnerships Coventry if I could work in one school for a significant period of time – at least a year, if not two –and not be forced to compromise the work to fit in with preconceived notions of what an arts project should look like. The work in Deedmore began after a key meeting set up by Creative Partnerships Coventry at the school in which I made it clear that I was only interested in working in special schools because I valued the creativity of people with learning disabilities above all else!
JO: Richard had a healthy disrespect for the bureaucracy of Creative Partnerships, suggesting that he began working very openly, learning through the practice where to take the work. But he was also keen to engage with the reflective process and welcomed questions. His approach challenged me to re-think the possible frames and prompts we offered teachers and artists in scoping, planning and reflecting on the work in order to deepen value.
RICHARD: I think I had gained that healthy disrespect because of working with people with learning disabilities. After trying many conventional theatre-making processes I’d had to discover and invent new ways of working that got to a deep level of truth in terms of the contribution that the actors could make to a creative process. So within the education system and the bureaucracy of Creative Partnerships I continued that search for truth in terms of both adapting the practice and in gaining a sense of its impact on pupils. The challenge of imposing existing systems on the work forced me to come up with better systems and better articulation of what was really going on. It was great that Jo was open to the challenge and also that the lead teacher at Deedmore was equally keen to understand and change ways of thinking and doing things when she witnessed the impact of the Shyster practice on her pupils.
JO: Richard built a strong relationship with the lead teacher and both welcomed engagement with the practice. I was regularly invited to witness and get involved with the work. Visits, discussions, evaluation meetings and written reports were littered with evidence and accounts of children whose behaviour had altered positively; who had achieved something new and previously unimaginable: a catalogue of moments of children communicating: eye contact, smiling, talking; instances of caring for each other, playing imaginatively together at playtime, listening and learning. Performance events were emotional affairs with parents (and staff) moved by the transformations they saw. Richard was increasingly committed to this work with young people. During this time I also attended a number of Shyster events and was always aware of how joyful and full of laughter they were. Richard brought out the best in everyone and the dynamic he generated with young people was life affirming.
RICHARD: I was genuinely quite puzzled by the impact on the children involved of what I was doing – although it was very welcome and satisfying to know that it was happening I wanted to know why. Was it just because I was mostly a joyful and life affirming kind of person and was good at passing that on in sessions and to some extent it didn’t matter what I did as long as I did in that way? Or was it the uniqueness of the practice itself (which included the way it was delivered by a practitioner) that was key to the impact. If it was the second, then the potential for its use could become huge – others could be trained in the practice and many more young people in special schools and elsewhere could benefit from it. So it became even more important to find ways of understanding and sharing the work. At the heart of this was a central conundrum though - how could we explain in words a process that in its essence is beyond words?
JO: Witnessing the children working with Richard and each other was evidently the best way to communicate the impact of the practice, so a film was made and used to share the work at a Drama education conference in Exeter. Preparing for the conference was our first attempt at understanding what was happening and marked my closer involvement with the project: in debating with the team about how to develop understanding and practice across the newly formed school. We focussed upon visual techniques and critical incident analyses…
RICHARD: …which we called ‘significant moments’. We felt that we could share those moments when a particular child made a significant achievement – a quantum leap -within the work and which was witnessed by the adults in the room. By talking through what led up to this moment it could be possible to understand what combination of current circumstances and previous experiences could have contributed to the significant moment taking place, which in turn could help with our understanding of what were the key elements of the practice. One of the most memorable of these significant moments was when one particular child, after two years of him resisting the use of his imagination, gave in to his growing understanding of ‘pretending’ by suddenly juggling with imaginary balls and really enjoying the experience.
JO: By the time Creative Partnerships and the Shysters funding was cut, the demand for Richard’s practice by schools in Coventry and Birmingham was established, supported also by Liz Leck at the Birmingham Hippodrome with whom we planned and delivered a symposium about the practice and its particular relevance to adolescents with learning disabilities transitioning from school. We also began writing about the work: for a research bid to Leverhulme and for journals – one has been published in the BJSE.
RICHARD: All of these activities – the symposium, the articles and the funding bids were in effect further (welcome) challenges to articulate the work more effectively and to communicate a better understanding of it both to ourselves and to others. They were also partly about a move to articulate the work in a context that was about common human development as opposed to being solely about learning disability and therefore implying a specialised and insular practice of limited use. As we looked at the work through a theatre lens, the term ‘mimetics’ seemed quite an accurate way to describe this embodied practice - and a more useful way of explaining it than 'shystering', which we had been using so far.
JO: We are now looking to develop our understanding of what happens to people through mimetics - how they develop. We have both read a bit about mirror-neuron theory – although there is no consensus about this from neuroscientists. Human development markers – as proposed by psychology seems most useful, but we really need to find some interested experts in other fields to help us take it further...