Play On

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"We were anarchy, we were challenge and laughter and freedom. "

Every day is a school day with 100 voices for 100 years, but not quite like the one Sharon Eckman ran... In a joy filled piece, performer and writer Sharon Eckman explains what happened when she and her band of fellow artists took over schools in North Wales. A great piece about the positive power of creativity.

Sharon Eckman is an actor and singer who has worked extensively in theatre, radio and concert in the West End, touring and abroad. Sharon is also a writer. She was Time Out Travel Writer of the Year and has been longlisted and shortlisted for several competitions and her short fiction has appeared in a number of publications. She will never read anything where a dog dies.

Transcript below:

Play on – by Sharon Eckman

“So what do you do up there?”

This was the question my mother asked when I said I was off again to North Wales to do more crazy stuff with Theatr Clwyd.  "We invade a school for a week," I said. “An army of artists.”

My first encounter with Theatr Clwyd was when I played Beatrice in Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge.  It was also my first encounter with Tim Baker, the director.  Tim is (and I've told him, so it's not like I'm hustling for another job) the best director I've ever worked with.  Not only because he is creative and imaginative but because he entirely trusts his actors – which is rarer than you might think.

 Then Tim rang me out of the blue one day. "What are you doing for the next six weeks?"  Given a little more notice than three days, I might have been able to say 'whatever you want'.  However, for the final fortnight I became a visiting artist and we did indeed invade a school. Two schools in fact, one for each week.

To quote Tim's press release: "The team consisted of a core of five actors and a host of visiting artists including a street dancer, performance poets, musicians, visual artists -  and events were created (as much as 40 per day) all over the school - in the corridors, at lunchtimes, at break times, and in the halls and classrooms.  The Hub was always conceived as a creative 'handshake' with young people and we consistently challenged students to respond to our interventions with their own creative work, through e-mailing us, through drop-boxes throughout the school, through workshops and other activities."

The schools weren’t necessarily Estyn (Welsh equivalent of Ofsted) 5-starred.  That's the point.  To go to places that don't get a stage fighting workshop, or a bunch of people coming into your classroom, performing an extract from Lord of the Flies and melting away again.

Tim gave us the freedom to wander round doing pretty much whatever we wanted. I’d patrol the corridors, peering into classrooms where students were immersed in maths or French and I felt like Puck, or the Trickster.  We were anarchy, we were challenge and laughter and freedom.  

A typical day went like this: 8am in the corrider, singing to welcome the kids and staff. . Lesson one maybe running a workshop, make a cup of tea, no time to drink it, oh I'm in English next, shall I do a poem or a song, or a workshop, quick sandwich for lunch if you've got a spare 15 minutes to eat it....  more classrooms, workshops, singing, poems, tea gone cold again, then we wave them off until tomorrow.

Each day we handed out themed cards: Friendship, fear, love... and the kids responded with lyrics, poems, monologues, scenes which we then performed back to them in their classes the following day.

So many highlights to this brilliant, insane project. Here are just a few.

1.  Introducing the three (I know, JUST THREE??)  A Level English Lit students to Primo Levi and truly shocking them as we spoke about how the doctor's pointing finger meant either the gas chambers or sort-of-life.  And then we worked on a poem about war. "Ever done any acting?" I asked.  They looked at me with trepidation, but half an hour later, performed it as though they were angry drunks at a bar, and loved every second.

2.  Touring the maths classrooms with a song composed by Tim based on a riddle written by one of the teachers.  I still have no idea what it means even after about nine renditions (the median's the... the mode is the... oh whatever) but apparently I made maths sound sexy.

3.  Singing a swiftly-composed love song about a hedgehog – the girl who wrote the poem clasped her hands to her face, overjoyed, friends either side nudging her with glee. "I'm in love with a hedgehog.  I've never felt this way before.  I'm in love with a hedgehog, and every day I love her more and more."

4.  Running lunchtime workshops on Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and watching a 15 year old girl slide in and out and in and then stay to practice and then perform with the group in the final concert. I was told by her SEN teacher that she’d never taken part in a school activity before. She came to thank me afterwards and it felt as good as any moment in my career. 

"You've transformed the school this week," a teacher told me. "I've seen pupils who never join in and never engage dancing, laughing, talking to the artists."

The creative industries are worth £92 billion a year to the UK economy but we’re living in a time where arts in schools are cut to the bone or cut altogether. Working on this project and others, I’ve seen the transformational power of the arts in schools and communities. The Hub was one of the craziest, most exciting, moving, exhausting and unforgettable things I’ve ever done and it – or something like it – should be in every school in the country, because every kid deserves a Hub.