This was the question my mother asked when I said I was off once again to North Wales to do crazy stuff with Clwyd Theatr Cymru Theatre for Young People – the community strand of Theatr Clwyd. “We take over a school for a week,” I said. “I’ll let you know when I haven’t been singing Sondheim in a freezing schoolyard since 8am.”
My first encounter with Theatr Clwyd was when I went to do Beatrice in A View from the Bridge. I love Miller and could happily spend my entire career in his plays, interspersed with Sondheim musicals. 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 or anything) the best director I’ve ever worked with. Not only because he is creative, imaginative and understands texts from the inside out, but because he trusts his actors. Towards the end of the third week, during that traditional floundering time when actors go ‘what the fuck am I doing?’, Tim cancelled rehearsals and told us to go away for three days. I took my script up Moel Famau, the highest hill in the Clwydian Range (thanks Wiki), and the following Monday came into rehearsal with a fully-formed Beatrice. I had literally gone up a hill and come down with a character. I loved it. I loved that he trusted us to get our arses in gear. Not everyone loved it but hey.
Fast forward several years and Tim rings me up. “What are you doing for the next six weeks?” Given a bit more notice than three days, I might have been able to say ‘whatever you want’, but I’d already got work lined up for much of it. However, for the last two weeks of Tim’s new project, called The Hub, I turned up as a visiting artist and, with the core team of five actors and several other visiting artists, we did indeed take over a school. Two schools, one for each week.
So what is it then? To quote Tim’s press release: “The team consisted of a core of five actors and a host of visiting artists that included 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.”
All the schools have been secondaries, not always OFSTED (or the Welsh equivalent) 5 starred. That’s the point. To go to places that don’t get this sort of stuff, 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 or Macbeth and melting away again.
A visitor from ACW (Arts Council of Wales) said: “This reminded me of why i work at the arts council.” It also reminded me of why I love being an actor. Tim gave us the freedom to wander round doing pretty much whatever we wanted – ooh look, there’s a classroom just waiting for a bit of To Kill a Mockingbird/a poem/a song/a breakdance/a guitar solo.
I remember walking down one corridor peering into classrooms full of bent-headed students and feeling like Puck, or the Trickster. We were anarchy, we were challenge and laughter and freedom. I hated school up until the fourth year – I’d been stuck in a different class to my friends and was miserable and bullied by the cool kids until we joined up for O Levels. One day, out of nowhere, two actors from the RSC turned up to give us English Lit students a short performance. And those actors? Ben Kingsley and Bob Peck. In our classroom. Othello and Iago. To this day I have no idea why they turned up, who had got them there, but I have never forgotten the awe I felt. And yes, that consolidated the ‘I want to be an actress’ path. Up until that point I wanted to be an astronaut, but as I could do neither Maths nor Science, it seemed unlikely.
Perhaps it was the same for these kids – actually, I know it was for some, because they told us, they tweeted, emailed, gave us flowers and in Nia’s case, a Valentine’s card.
This last project – as if the schools weren’t ambitious enough – took over a whole town, Connah’s Quay, the largest in Flintshire. For five weeks, interventions were staged everywhere from a care home to primary schools, in Morrisons, on buses, on roundabouts. Seven people in blue boiler suits managing to make red and blue umbrellas a must-have fashion accessory. The blues were the core team, the red boiler suits were the visiting artists. I’ve never discovered why the boiler suits – we are called Artists@work, maybe that’s why, or maybe it’s because they are unflattering to absolutely everyone – but they are certainly distinctive. And have a lot of pockets for phones, pens, scraps of paper, the complicated schedule. Ah the schedule. 8-8.45 – in the corrider, singing to welcome the kids and staff. Everyone else doing their own thing in and outside. Lesson one performing arts, crossover between lessons, make a cup of tea, no time to drink it, come back and it’s cold, oh look 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 the next day.
Each day we handed out cards with themes on them: Friendship, fear, love… and the kids responded with lyrics, poems, monologues, scenes which we then performed back to them. We got amazing stuff. One girl had written a science fiction novel – two of the actors did a scene from that at the closing concerts.
Each of the visiting artists gets to do a party piece at the closing concerts. For the two previous Hubs, I’d gone with Worst Pies in London from Sweeney Todd. My props were a fake pie and lots of rubber cockroaches that I chucked into the audience to much screaming. This year, always up-to-the-minute, I went with Last Midnight from Into the Woods. Thanks to my niece Sarah, my prop was the Elder Wand from Harry Potter (she got it for me at a knockdown price when she worked at the Harry Potter Studios). Gods but that was fun. I lose track of how many pupils I scared during that song, but it was a fair few. And quite a few sidled up to me during the week and muttered “You’ve got a great voice, miss” before sidling off again.
There have been so many highlights to this brilliant, insane project, but here’s some from the latest.
1. Playing the cajon for the first time in public, and jamming with some of the best musicians I’ve ever met. OK, I’m not the best cajon player in the world, but it was bloody marvellous.
2. Taking Mark Grist and Mary Oliver poems into classrooms and watching the pupils’ faces go from resignation to genuine pleasure. It doesn’t always have to be Wordsworth, kids.
3. 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 stunning poem called Explaining the Declaration. “Ever done any acting?” I asked. They looked at me with trepidation, but half an hour later, having split the poem into one line each, they performed it as though they were angry drunks at a bar, and loved every second.
4. 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.
5. Singing a love song about a hedgehog (the girl who wrote the poem was in the audience was overjoyed, hands clasped to her face, her friends either side of her nudging her with glee). Nia, Claire and I LOVED the hedgehog song. “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.”
6. And of course, triple threat girl (actor, singer, dancer) whose name turned out to be Ellison. At going home time the afternoon before, this sweet, shy twelve-year old picked up the mic and sang – brilliantly – with the musos. She was in the audience at the second of our third concerts and I thought ‘she has to sing in the final gig’. So Tim and I asked her if she fancied joining me on the blues he’d written to lyrics by Reece. Reece, cerebral palsy, wheelchair, sharp and funny, had loved every second of us being there, following us around, chatting and when he knew we were doing his song, was beside himself. Anyway. She got ten minutes of rehearsal and to end the concert, we called her up on stage and she improvised with me like a pro. We harmonised, we played vocal games, she was phenomenal. “Thank you so much,” she said afterwards. “I never thought I’d get a chance to do anything like this.” Watch out for triple threat girl, she’s’ going to be huge.
Any downsides? Well, trying to belt out music theatre numbers while you’re still virtually asleep was tricky, but then hey, that’s your job. It’s incredibly tiring, but I was only up for three days this time and the core team had been non-stop for six weeks. I genuinely don’t know how they were still standing. Our green room was like a plague village – circling germs jumped from one to another as everyone coughed and sneezed like the last act of La Boheme. Seat of the pants at all times as we zoomed from place to place, often making things up as we went along.
But what a great gig, with the loveliest bunch of people – talented, focused, funny and at all times serving the job and not our egos. “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.”
And we get paid. See you soon, Team Clwyd x