Stage Struck

18th September 2015

Kathy Walton discovers how the power of theatre is transforming young lives

“It was amazing to hear her saying her two lines in front of everyone and to see her joining in with such enthusiasm and confidence and being a real part of it all.”

These are the words of Jo, mother of 11-year-old Emma, who astounded her parents and friends with her performance in a youth theatre production earlier this year.

Jo’s pride is hardly unusual for a doting mum. After all, any parent who’s just seen their child in a school Nativity play or summer show would say much the same thing – but what makes Jo’s words so moving is that Emma was born with cerebral palsy, which affects her speech, co-ordination and balance. Consequently, she often lacks confidence in social situations and sometimes struggles to fit in.

Yet in April, Emma defied all expectations when she bravely trod the boards with Theatre Shed, a remarkable company based in Chesham, which for ten years has been taking children and young people (with and without special needs) and which, according to one newspaper critic, ‘performs miracles’ with both the young performers and the attitudes of the audience.

Theatre Shed is an inclusive theatre charity that opens its doors to anyone, regardless of their background or (dis)ability and, quite simply, aims to give them a fair shot at life by bringing out the best of them through the medium of drama, song and friendship.

Very aptly, their Easter 2015 production (in which Emma appeared) was called Lifted for the way in which the cast overcame the obstacles in their way. The play tells the magical journey taken by a group of friends to help their friend Jack ‘find’ his voice. Just as people with additional needs face barriers in the shape of prejudice and lack of wheelchair access in real life, so the young heroes of Lifted have to draw on all their powers of imagination and determination to brave pirates, stormy seas, witches and dark forests along their way. When, in the final scene, Jack finds his voice by reaching for the stars, he isn’t the only one to be transformed; again and again audiences confess to being astounded by the young people’s performances.

“The feedback is all positive,” says Theatre Shed’s Joint Artistic Director Sally Barnard, who has been with the company since 2011. “Often even parents [of special needs children] are surprised by the interaction between their child and the other children. They see them doing things that they never thought they’d do and are amazed at their achievements.”

Sally’s sentiments are echoed by Carly Young, Marketing Manager for the equally visionary Herts Inclusive Theatre (HIT), which started in 2001 and runs classes and workshops throughout the year for children and adults in Watford, Rickmansworth and Borehamwood.

She says: “The mums and dads are completely blown away by their children’s development. One mother said it means such a lot to her child just to be on stage.”

According to Carly, HIT is one place where “children can feel safe, where they can make new friends and feel no pressure” because no-one is auditioned and everyone is given a role, even those who prefer to be backstage. She cites the example of a boy who arrived at HIT at age 11 with poor social skills, no confidence and behavioural issues that were severe enough for him to have been excluded from school.

“He wouldn’t talk at first,” recalls Carly. “But one day we asked if he’d help with the lighting and now he’s fallen in love with lighting and has won a place at university to study technical theatre. Last year, he raised more than £1,000 for HIT at an event he organised at college.”

Teenage Amy, who has global developmental delay, describes herself as having been “absolutely terrified” when she started at HIT, but within a few months, she was playing the gutsy Queen of Hearts in a production of Alice in Wonderland and, according to Carly, virtually “owned the stage” when she came on.

Even for the HIT team who are used to seeing young people’s lives turn around, it was what Carly calls an ‘oh my god’ moment. Now 17, Amy is studying cookery at college and very touchingly, every week brings in home-made cakes and biscuits for her friends at HIT.

Many parents approach inclusive theatre companies because their children have been sidelined by other activities, such as Brownies or football clubs, and are often positively tearful with relief when they finally find an open door.

What makes inclusive companies such as HIT and Theatre Shed so special is that they share a belief that everyone has something to contribute and that the end product (or production) is guided and shaped by each individual participant, not the other way round. There are no auditions, and diversity and inclusiveness are celebrated so that mainstream and special needs participants learn from one another, according to Sally from Theatre Shed: “The mainstream children get an experience they wouldn’t get in other theatre companies. Because it’s an inclusive environment, they interact with different people and learn empathy. Their ways of being creative are challenged and the audience’s preconceptions [about disability] are challenged too.”

This term HIT will be using a series of drama workshops to help develop children’s life skills and explore issues such as friendship and bullying in a fun approach. The way in which the workshops develop can’t always be predicted, but even when young performers unexpectedly go ‘off-piste’ during a session, this can be put to creative good use, as Carly explains: “We get to know the children on a personal level and will incorporate their [characteristics] into their part, even into their way of rehearsing. For example, if the whole cast is going left and someone’s going right, we let them go with it.”

Inclusive theatre is such a wonderful concept that is hard to believe it only took off as recently as 1974, when London musician Jo Collins and teacher Mary Ward decided to start their own theatre company with the aim of ‘harnessing the creativity in everyone.’

Because they were short of money, their first venue was a humble former hen house in North London and so they named their fledgling company Chicken Shed; in time, it hatched a new chick: HIT.

In the early 1980s, Chicken Shed included a boy with cerebral palsy. When a teenage member asked ‘If we’re open to everyone, why is he the only one?’, the company’s policy of integration really took shape. Veteran actors Judi Dench (now Dame) and Trevor Nunn (now Sir) became trustees and in 1988 Lady Jane Rayne (sister of Lady Annabel Goldsmith) became the company’s President.

Fortunately for Chicken Shed’s profile (and for the growth of inclusive theatre internationally), the impeccably well-connected Lady Rayne proved to be more than just a figurehead. A former maid of honour at the Queen’s coronation, she and her husband Lord Rayne devoted themselves to raising funds for Chicken Shed and, just as importantly, she soon introduced the company to Diana, Princess of Wales. After attending several performances, the Princess really ‘got’ their vision and so helped spread the word about inclusive theatre, both nationally and internationally. There are even, for example, two ‘Sheds’ in Russia.

Remarkably for a theatre company that gives roles to performers who might not be accepted elsewhere, Chicken Shed productions have won several awards, including Best Male category in the 2012 Off West End Theatre Awards and Best Theatre Company in the 2011 Fringe Report Awards. Their professional development programme provides training and work experience in theatre skills via its BTEC course, with 95% of their students achieving a nationally recognised qualification – not bad when you consider that 66% of these students would not be permitted to start a course at any other college or university.

Princess Diana may no longer be with us, but the Chicken Shed ethos she so admired is still alive and well at HIT, perpetuating what Carly calls “theatre that inspires, engages and resonates by breaking down barriers and removing everyday prejudices associated with disability.”

And over at Chesham’s Theatre Shed, Sarah feels much the same. “If you have the right attitude that we’re all equal, it’s magical and special to experience that. I feel proud to work somewhere where we can provide that for our audience.”

Theatre Shed runs weekly music, dance and drama workshops for children, young people and adults at Chesham Youth Centre, Old Drill Hall, Bellingdon Road, Chesham. They also run activities for schools. • 07952 461344.

HIT organises regular ‘discovery’ drama workshops, fun, film and ‘sensory’ days throughout the year in schools and at The James Theatre (Watford Boys’ Grammar School), Watersmeet (Rickmansworth) and The Ark Theatre (Borehamwood). • 07857 986364 • 01923 499310.

Chicken Shed run theatre-based and school courses and workshops.
email: • 020 8351 6161.

Each of these theatre companies charges for sessions, but concessions are available.

Some children’s names have been changed.

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