Tom’s Undercliffe Tales blog

On my first day working with young people at Carlton Bolling College I hit a brick wall, and I hit it hard. I try and say as little as possible when facilitating a session but (in my head) what I do say is somewhere between Eddie Izzard and Socrates. I like getting laughs and I like to provoke. I try and set out the ground rules clearly, give a stimulus, and then encourage people to run with it. And for over a decade of professional facilitation that’s worked just fine. So finding myself in a hall with 14 young people who speak almost no English, who can’t understand the rules, can’t understand the stimulus, can’t understand that what we are offering could be fun and self-expressive, was frightening. And frustrating; I got the impression that they were bright, witty, playful. But we couldn’t play the same game if we didn’t understand each other. These young people are new arrivals to Carlton Bolling, to Bradford, to the UK, to speaking English and Shakera and I were conducting an inquiry with Cape UK: what impact do performing arts activities have on the literacy development on newly arrived students to the UK? But I suspected that Shakera and I were going to learn far more than the young people.

We worked with two other groups at the school, a year seven group and a group who had been in the country for over a year. Each group had different strengths and challenges. This process was so new for us that it was easy to become disheartened; to see how far we were from our goals, rather than how much progress we made each session; the extra confidence and ability to work together they exhibited and the way we progressed from feeling barely in control to being able to focus each group on the task in hand.

The process concluded with each group showing the others their work; we turned one of the school halls into a black box studio and covered the walls with the masks they’d made. They did things which might seem simple to us, but would have been inconceivable when we started the project, standing up there, speaking, moving, wearing their masks.


And then before we knew it, we were packing up, taking down the black curtains, putting away the lights, handing the young people their masks to take home. A performance lasts for such a short time; in this case thirty minutes. And then it’s packed up and gone. But sometimes theatre, for the audience and the participants, can be a magical thing which stays with you forever. I really hope that’s how it was for these young people.

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