Dramatic Connections

By Ali Bailey
Ali Bailey (left) with fellow Scene and Heard enthusiasts

The square mile of land that makes up Somers Town in central London is home to people from a huge variety of cultures from all over the world, many with refugee status. It is also one of the most deprived inner-city areas in the U.K. Whilst being richly multicultural, the fact that new groups are "dropped into" this built-up area, often the antithesis of their original environment, means that alienation through language and cultural barriers is common. For children in this environment, their lack of a sense of place and belonging can profoundly affect their confidence and development.

In 1999 Kate Coleman and Sophie Boyak began a mentoring and community theater project in Somers Town, using theater making as a powerful catalyst for forming connections, nurturing creativity and instilling a sense of confidence in local children. With imagination and commitment, they have succeeded in contributing to a multilayered transformation of community relationships within the area.

Their project Scene and Heard links local children, from ages 9 to 14 , with volunteer theater professionals who work with them to create plays, which are performed publicly in the community theater by professional actors. The performances are the culmination of an enjoyable ten week after-school course.

The project offers the children an uncompetitive environment where they learn to value their own ideas and ability to communicate. Whatever their level of language or academic prowess, here there is a "level playing field" where their success is guaranteed. Each child's voice is nurtured and expressed in their own short play, to an audience made up of their parents, friends, friends of the performers and also from the local and wider community.

Kate Coleman believes that the sense of ownership each child feels over their play is key to the increase in self-confidence they invariably enjoy. The theater professionals who work with each child are there as a facilitator and scribe (so the child does not have to worry about struggling with spelling or punctuation). They help the child to structure their play by asking questions such as "How does the character feel about that?" or "What could they do next?" to help the story unfold, but the dialogue and ideas are the child's own. It is their take on the world which emerges in the plays, which are quirky, surreal, magical, funny, tragic and sometimes all of these at once.

The mother of a very quiet Bangladeshi boy said that she felt as if she was meeting a whole new side to his character while watching his play. A sense of connection and self-esteem is also gained from the immediacy of the response of a live audience. There is no question in the child's mind that what they wrote made people laugh, listen, feel sad, frightened or happy and, at the end, applaud.

Parents of another boy who had been facing exclusion from school said that at a critical time the project had been a lifeline for their son. It had also enabled him to see some value in discipline and structure for the first time because he was so happy with the end product. For some of the children it becomes a consistently positive experience in a chaotic or unsettled life.

The performances in the local community theater are amazing occasions with an atmosphere of warmth and excitement. Jaded theater directors can be heard declaring they haven't had such a fantastic evening in the theater for years. The children absorb the pride of their parents, friends and adults who have worked with them and they have a strong sense of their own power to create such a positive and enjoyable experience for everyone there. A community within the community has been created, with shared experiences and strong connections, which will undoubtedly lead to an enriched future for everyone.

One Child's Journey Through Scene & Heard
by Sophie Boyak

Memet (not his real name) came to the UK at the age of 6 along with his parents and older sister. He joined Scene & Heard at the age of 10, a time when his Turkish was more fluent than his English. Memet was always very enthusiastic, but very forgetful. He would have to be telephoned ten minutes before Scene & Heard began and told to leave the house! Neither of his parents spoke English, although his mother was learning; he and his older sister communicated with the outside world on behalf of the family. He took part in the Playmaking One course and came to weekly after school classes where he worked one on one with an adult theatre professional and learnt the basics of playwriting. He then spent a weekend writing a two-character, ten-minute play for two actors whom he had interviewed before commencing the play in order to be able to write to their strengths and weaknesses. He wrote a beautiful play about a tiger called Dean and a rat called Minnie. The tiger be-friends the rat and asks her to help him get to the zoo, because there he will be given food and water and not have to hunt. Minnie thinks he's crazy, but helps. Sure enough, Dean hates the zoo--all the people staring at him and no food and water. Minnie helps him to escape, but as he does so he is shot and killed by the zoo-keeper. The audience were literally moved to tears and Memet was delighted that he had made people sad for that is what he had wanted to do. Memet returned to us a year later to write his second play, which was a three-character piece about a scientific discovery. He still had to be reminded to come, but was getting a little better at remembering where he had to be when.

The following year he was asked if he wanted to come on the Stage One course. This is where the children are given the chance to try their hands at acting, but without having to perform in public. Memet was very uncertain because he was essentially a very shy child. We told him that it was still about writing--he would devise a short piece to perform along with an actor--and he was persuaded. The following summer he took part in our One-on-One course and needed no persuasion. He performed on stage with a professional actor in a play especially written for him. After coming off stage at the end of the second performance he declared that he wanted to do it all again and felt sure the audience wouldn't mind watching it twice! At the beginning of the One-on-One course Memet had been asked when he was happiest in his life and he answered that it was when he saw his first play performed.

Memet's English improved enormously over the three years he worked with us and his confidence grew hugely. Memet now attends Hampstead Youth Theatre. He gets the bus there himself and no-one has to ring him to remind him to leave the house.

Ali Bailey is a theater practitioner and Scene and Heard volunteer.