100 Years of a Borrowash House
Script commission working with the children of Ashbrook Junior School Borrowash, Derbyshire.
There are always a few defining moments when you’re working on a Community Theatre project. Of course, there is the first meeting (“Will anyone turn up?”); there is the point of no return (“I’ve been saying its months away but now it’s next week!”); and of course there is the moment of applause, of ending, of hugs and of going on your way (“What are we going to do next?”)
But there are also other moments where you realise the importance of what you’re doing – a small observation, a simple turning point, a quiet but important success.
Community Theatre comes in all shapes and sizes. As the director of Number 17 – 100 Years of a Borrowash House I was looking forward very much to working with a group of energetic youngsters and to tackling a play the likes of which they probably had never experienced before. I knew we had quite a job before us, but I also knew that we were being well supported by the school. Our initial session came and went and Chrissie, who wrote the play, has described it in some detail elsewhere in this blog so suffice to say that we all had a good time. That was part of the process of getting to know the children, of seeing who fitted where in the script. There were sixty or so characters, and thirty-five performers. We ended up with a couple of helpers from another class.
Once the play had been cast and the scripts were printed off we all sat in a big circle and began to read it through. One of the technicalities of performing is that if you don’t clearly understand what you are reading you will never deliver it well. Doesn’t matter if it’s Shakespeare or Peppa Pig, if you don’t understand it, the audience will struggle to understand it. On that basis, I had told the children before we started that if there was anything that they didn’t understand they should put their hand up and either Chrissie or myself would explain.
We got to page twenty-two.
Now, Chrissie has put up some posts here about the play and what we got up to, but she has very modestly not mentioned the content of the piece, so I will explain here. Number 17 – 100 Years of a Borrowash House was exactly that – a real story about a real house, tirelessly researched. In the play, the house was a real live character, played by Dave Wood via a projector and a screen. We began with the house being built, and then we met each and every person that had lived in the house, from the beginning to the present day. One of those people was Chrissie herself, so one of the children was playing her, while another of the children was playing her boyfriend / fiancé / husband. Chrissie had portrayed herself and her husband in a less than flattering manner – they were the ones that pulled out all of the original features, much to the house’s disgust.
We’d got to the part in the script where Chrissie and Martin were tearing out the old fireplace:
MARTIN HALL Careful, this mantlepiece is slate, it’ll kill us if it lands on us.
NUMBER 17 Don’t tempt me.
CHRISSIE HALL I’m covered in soot.
NUMBER 17 Serves you right!
MARTIN HALL Ouch, my finger, it’s bleeding.
A hand went up. “What’s soot?”
Myself, Chrissie and Dave all shot glances at each other, a little bit in disbelief. Chrissie explained what soot was. A couple of the children had open fireplaces and told us about chimneysweeps. We carried on reading. There were other questions, of course. But that one really stuck with me. This was a bright girl, with a good vocabulary and lots of common sense. But she, and the rest of her class, have only ever known the 21st century. Ask her what Minecraft is and she’ll have an answer for you. But many things, the knowledge of which we oldies take for granted, have never had a place in her life.
So, we rehearsed and we arranged costumes and we panicked a bit and we got all the fake beards and moustaches sorted out (I’m a firm believer in fake beards and moustaches.) The week of the performance came and things went very well, thanks to a lot of hard work from everyone involved, including the cast. The children wanted to do it all again. The adults mainly needed a sit down.
It’s very easy to judge projects such as this as based solely on the end product – the applause, the number of people who turn up, whether everyone remembered their lines. For me the process is the important thing, the learning, the camaraderie, the building of trust. It’s about understanding a community, a play like this one; it’s about making friends with the past. And so while it is obviously great that the play was received so well, the fact that a young girl in Borrowash now understands soot is – for me – just brilliant.
It’s been an exciting summer for local writer Chrissie Hall
Working with Director Julian Hanby, Poet Dave Wood, under the aegis of Wash Arts and funded by Heritage Lottery, Chrissie’s been writing a stage play tracing the history of a very special Edwardian villa in Borrowash, Derbyshire.
From the day Victorian entrepreneur Alonzo Cheetham of Victoria Avenue Borrowash bought building land on Princess Drive, right up to the current owners, the lives and times of every ‘custodian’ of ‘Number 17’ (including the writer who lived at Number 17 in the 1960’s) have been researched by genealogist Keith Osman, local volunteers from the ‘Unexamined lives’ project, and history undergraduates from The University of Derby. The play maps a unique history of the social and economic changes of the last century as experienced by families living in Number 17. Several former and the current ‘custodians’ of this lovely Edwardian villa, VIP’s and members of the local community will be able to enjoy 100 years of village history, portrayed by Ashbrook School pupils in a Christmas performance at school on 15th December.
The stage is up in the school hall. There are two boxes full of props in the corner of the classroom and there’s some serious word learning to be done. With over sixty ‘characters’ in the play, and a cast of 35, many of the children will be portraying more than one character. The challenge is to be ‘in character’ in the right place, at the right time, in the right costume with the right props It’s fun and exciting, it’s also hard work – lots of potential for chaos.
We’re anticipating some crazy moments at rehearsals from now on because finally we get to use props! So who gets the bucket and shovel and has to collect some nice fresh horse muck for Dad’s allotment? What’s that they’re drinking out of the tankard? Who will eat the bloater paste sandwiches?
As well as some VIP guests, (including The Mayor of Erewash, Councillor Val Custance, Mo Cooper from The Heritage Lottery Fund, members of the community, ladies of the Ockbrook and Borrowash W.I., pupils, parents, school governors, families and friends) several of the ‘characters’ the children are portraying on stage will be in the audience! No pressure then!
Counting down to the big day (and night), our November sessions involve devising songs music, chants and poems for the performances, more drama ‘games’ and work on tableau formations.
With poet Dave Wood, the children create skipping rhymes, chants, and poems about moving. With 100 years and dozens of different ‘custodians’ living in Number 17 there’s a lot of ‘moving experiences’ to portray. This is a Christmas performance so we need a carol or two as well. No problem for the talented children of Ashbrook Juniors!
Plenty of parts up for grabs right now! Where are the Divas? Who can learn words? Who can’t? Who wants to be seen and not heard? Who has extra talents to show off? Dancing? Singing? Cartwheeling? Clowning around? Competition’s fierce. Strutt your stuff everyone – impress us and you’re in!
OCTOBER – INTO REHEARSALS
Afternoons working with 9 – 11 year olds at Ashbrook Junior School.
CREATIVE WORDS AND PICTURES
In workshops led by poet Dave Wood and writer Chrissie Hall the children produced six collaborative six lined poems relating to house and home, and 35 cards on which they’d each chosen two architectural features for their ‘house’, fixed them on cards and wrote one word to describe their home.
MINI DRAMA PERFORMANCES
Using a house/home related title allocated by the Director, each group collaboratively devised and rehearsed a ‘scene’ interpreting the title, culminating in performances of mini-dramas at the end of the afternoon.
THE BIG REVEAL
While the children were still FIZZING with excitement after their performances, we did the BIG REVEAL! ‘Number 17’ project was a play with a public performance at Christmas.
The response was lots of happy children and enthusiastic questions. Yes, they’d be performing in the big hall. Yes, they’d be performing for an audience of other pupils, parents and others. Yes, there would be stage lighting. Yes, probably spotlights!! Yes, music and sound effects (provided by undergraduates from the University of Derby). Yes, there would be singing. Yes, they’d have ‘stage props’ including beards and moustaches! (That went down well). And we’d also have the services of an undergraduate Stage Manager from the University of Derby. We hadn’t discussed stage make-up, so when that question hit us we had to be cagey!
We look forward to developing Number 17 in school over the coming weeks and we thank the staff and pupils of Ashbrook Junior School for their co-operation and enthusiasm.