I was recently approached by Contact to deliver a project. My remit was a simple one; I was given a small budget and a borough. That borough was Tameside. Tameside is a place that Contact has been trying to create a partnership in for some time. The borough is around ten miles from the city centre, about a half hour drive depending on traffic.
As a local artist and Tameside resident, I am all too familiar with the journey into Manchester, the pot luck with traffic and public transport, the stresses of finding a parking space and not paying the earth for it! I can understand why schools and community groups might be put off, so when I needed to find a partner for this project, I knew I needed a plucky one…. enter Thomas Ashton School! Thomas Ashton is a special school in Hyde, for pupils who have identified social, emotional and/or mental health needs.
Through conversations with staff at the school, we (myself and Contact) collaboratively designed a project. We didn’t want the project to be a one-off, but to fit into the school's overall arts strategy. We decided to run a half term of weekly movement and drama workshops that explored the theme of anger. This is an emotion that many of the students struggle with, both to understand and to deal with it. As part of the project, we also chose to incorporate Arts Award Explore. This meant that we could organise a half term of drumming sessions that also explored the theme of anger, and organise a visit to Contact where the students got to go on a tour of the building, eat pizza (I am sure they enjoyed this more than the whole project!) and watch a show. An artist from the company who made the show, also visited the school to deliver a spoken word workshop. The project culminated in a sharing event for family and friends, where the drumming work provided a live music score for each dance piece performed. The project itself was a roaring success! I enjoyed it so much! I genuinely looked forward to going into school each week. I think what made this project such a success was the strength of the partnership. As an independent artist facilitator and Project Manager I felt that I got to be the ‘middle person’, I got to see ‘both sides’. And wow, what sides!
Contact is a young person theatre and so they really know how to engage with young people. They provided the funding for the project and made sure tickets were available for an appropriate show. The show we went to see was ‘The Broke N Beat Collective’ from 20 Stories High and it was AMAZING! The issues explored in the show were really relevant to the young people from Thomas Ashton, and it was performed in such a cool and accessible way - it really inspired them! Add to that the organisation of providing access to the whole building for a tour, providing the young people (and teachers!) with food and organising car parking for the school minibuses, the journey into Manchester was wholly positive. Thomas Ashton School were just fabulous throughout the project. They really made time for the project and integrated it into their weekly routine. All staff were wholly on board and supportive. They were ready each week with cameras for evidencing, and the photographs were always printed off and ready to stick in log books. The staff are really excellent, and they really get ART!!! Pupils at Thomas Ashton School can present challenges but they are worth those challenges! It was great that the school let myself and Contact in and I am glad we created this partnership because it just works so well. We are even doing a second project with Key Stage 2 focused around Arts Award Discover. After working with Contact and Thomas Ashton it is clear to see from these pupils, that underneath all the behaviours are wonderful and talented young people and we just need to find different ways to bring that out as visiting artists. I have put my three top tips below:
- Be open - I think often as artists we have a clear idea of what we want to see at the end of a creative process. When working with professional artists, you usually get what you have in your head, at the end of a creative task. At Thomas Ashton I didn’t get this, what I got was something brilliant and unique to that young person. They would put their own interpretation on the task, and this created some really interesting movement work.
- Be changeable - I often change my ideas as a project moves on in response to the group I am working with. I allow my ideas to evolve. One of the classes at Thomas Ashton was really inspired by Harry Potter, so I had a think about how I could incorporate this into the theme of anger. I decided we should do a session creating wizarding duals. I asked the group, what spells would you cast if you were duelling another wizard and you were really angry? It brought another dimension to our sessions and discussions and the class created really inventive duelling sequences, using both text and movement, devised entirely by themselves!
- Be individual - Facilitating Arts Award is a really creative process and I believe that this should be maintained throughout the whole project. It is my job as the facilitator to cultivate that mindset, especially when it comes to evidencing. For this project I used the official Arts Award log books and we filled in pages week by week. I had considered doing an example log book, but decided against this - why should I prescribe how each young person should fill in their log book? Evidence should be as unique as the young person collecting it, and although I gave guidance, the individuality really came through. Each young person has annotated comments, used colour, stuck in more than what I asked for… They really took ownership of their logbooks and subsequently of gaining their Arts Award qualification.
So what’s next for the partnership? Well, based upon the success of this project, Contact have agreed to fund a second project for Key Stage Two. It is a much simpler version of the project we have just delivered mainly because it will incorporate Arts Award Discover rather than Explore. Myself and Contact also provided mentoring support to the school to enable them to apply to the Arts Access Fund, and we are pleased to say their bid was successful! Thomas Ashton will be able to deliver another Arts Award project in September, once again working in collaboration with artists from Contact and linking in the project with one of Contacts programmed shows; Bedtime Stories by Upswing Aerial.
The project will allow some of the students to complete their Arts Award at Bronze level and will continue what appears to be a budding partnership between Contact, Thomas Ashton School and myself.