When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, it brought the curtain down early on the first year of a three-year play-making project that is bringing arts opportunities to schools in areas of Plymouth with traditionally low cultural engagement.
But, thanks to a ‘digital stage’ created on a new website, the children’s work will reach appreciative audiences for years to come.
Since last autumn, hundreds of children across 10 classes at five schools in Devonport, Stonehouse, Keyham and Stoke have been working with arts professionals on the Plymouth Cultural Education Partnership’s With Flying Colours project, to write, develop and co-create a series of pieces to perform at their schools and in the wider community.
The schools involved this year are Stoke Damerel Community College and four feeder primary schools - St Peter’s, Mount Wise Community, College Road and Marlborough. Each was working on a 30-minute school play as well as short pop-up pieces - planned locations included the Torpoint Ferry, the Dockyard, Devonport Park, an outdoor high street setting and a restaurant. Through a series of workshops, the sets, props and costumes were being made by people and businesses in the local community, building skills to keep arts thriving in the area long after the project ends.
The work was all set to culminate in a fringe-style community-based festival this month.
But in March, everything had to stop.
For the With Flying Colours team, the challenge was to ensure all that brilliant work would get to be seen and applauded after all. The result is a website http://withflyingcoloursplymouth.co.uk/ which showcases the creativity of the young people by realising their ideas digitally. Each school has its own ‘zone’ on the website, with links to multi-media examples of the work, which is presented by the artists who worked with the year groups.
With Flying Colours is led by Plymouth Cultural Education Partnership (PCEP) and brings together expertise from organisations such as Theatre Royal Plymouth, Barbican Theatre, Above Bounds Theatre Collective, Plymouth Dance and Plymouth Music Zone. War Horse writer, Michael Morpurgo, is the project’s Ambassador.
At College Road Primary School in Keyham, some 80 children from Years 4, 5 and 6 took part: “The children will be super-excited that there is an outcome, that people are able to see their ideas on the website,” said headteacher, Carina Francis.
“It was been a wonderful experience for them. Year 6 were working with the professional theatre makers to develop their own idea of a play that was based around their local street. They had created all these fictional characters and a community, using their imaginations, and they were ready to develop it for the school play. The whole school hall was going to be taken over with the set, lighting rig, everything.”
Carina added: “Working with arts professionals really opens children’s eyes and raises their aspirations that this is something they can be involved in and can do. Our Year 5s especially loved it - it brought them out of themselves. Children that are usually quiet were really having a go. They found a voice. So for us, this project is having a real impact.
“We are now looking forward to the next two years, when Years 4 and 5 move up. And hopefully, our students that go on to Stoke Damerel will be involved in their Year 7 class.”
Director of Learning and Engagement at Theatre Royal Plymouth, Mandy Precious, explained how the project is at the forefront of a drive to broaden cultural access: “There is a real movement of change in the arts, for opportunities to be shared out and democratic. For this to be possible, people need to have fair access. And stories need to be told that are written by everyone, where the children have a sense of ownership in what is being created and where they own the means of production, so they feel they can and then do make their own work.
“Of course, the whole plan was for a festival celebration of this work, but the pandemic put paid to that. But in one sense, that has opened up an opportunity for a different festival, a digital one on a platform that will reach a wider audience and will be there for a very long time.”
With Flying Colours is using a repetition model, which will see schools from two other areas of Plymouth joining the project in Years 2 and 3. Sir John Hunt Community Sports College and up to five feeder schools in Whitleigh will join the project in the academic year starting this autumn - pandemic permitting - with five more from a third area of the city joining for the final year in autumn 2021. In the summer of 2022 therefore, up to 15 schools will be performing their work at locations in their communities.
Mandy said: “We would hope that the website will inspire the other schools. They can see what happens when children and creative artists work together, because a sort of magic happens, they create something special. This is what the website shows. Moving forward, perhaps we can develop further this blended approach of face-to-face and digital because the website does provide a real long-term legacy.”
Michael Morpurgo added: “If we did not know before how important the making of theatre was in our lives, how hard it is to be without it, we know now. But because we cannot perform or go to the theatre it does not mean it is denied to us. We can write, rehearse, sing, dance, and we can perform virtually. We can still tell our stories. Storytelling is at the heart of all theatre, and we can still do that.”
Government funding for five ‘Youth Performance Partnership’ projects was made available for communities in areas of high socio-economic deprivation in England. Plymouth’s bid won the South West’s £1 million pot from the Department of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and Arts Council England.