Every child should experience the magic of the theatre

Director of Stratford Circus, Tania Wilmer, explains how they are partnering with world-class productions to offer children free access to amazing theatre experiences.

31 March 2016

Picture credit: Stratford Circus Arts Centre

In January this year, 4,500 school children in Newham came to Stratford Circus Arts Centre to see Akram Khan Company’s new work Chotto Desh for free.

We delivered this as part of Every Child a Theatre Goer, a Newham Council supported partnership with Stratford Circus Arts Centre, which gives every Year 6 student free access to an exceptional piece of theatre. This is an initiative that I am immensely proud of. It makes a strong statement that every child in this borough, which has high levels of child poverty, has a right to access the best art this country has to offer, regardless of their circumstances.

In a time when local government budgets are being slashed and schools are struggling to resource creative education opportunities retaining a borough-wide initiative like this is significant. It is something that we are committed to making the most of for our audiences - delivering maximum value for the Council and the schools.

For many of the children who come to Every Child a Theatre Goer, this is their first experience of theatre. As this is the case it’s critically important that the work is of the highest quality, and that the experience of visiting their local arts centre is a good one. We want children to leave feeling like they have had an engaging and entertaining experience that they would like to repeat! We want to raise aspirations through a sense that something important and exciting is happening in their own arts centre, situated in their neighbourhood. Importantly, this experience needs to impart confidence that it is a place to which they can come back and explore more, or use as a stepping stone to connect with the many other cultural institutions in this city.

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The conversations with Akram Khan Company started over two years ago when the project was being dreamt up. Akram’s producer for the project, Claire Cunningham, was rightly convinced of the adaptability of Desh - his autobiographical and Olivier-award-winning work - for younger audiences. The physical theatre piece draws on the choreographer’s Bangladeshi heritage, his experiences of growing up in the UK and navigating his own identity as a young person.

I invited the company to Stratford Circus Arts Centre for the early stages of the making process. Newham is home to one of the most culturally diverse populations in the country, and to start the conversation here with local children felt very important. Not only because it would be a fantastic experience for the young people and teachers to be involved in the making of a production of this calibre (which has now gone on to tour the world), but also because the young people based in the borough offered the company a very sophisticated understanding of what it is to navigate a multicultural and intercultural existence.

It was certainly the thematic pertinence to the audience, in addition to the aesthetic quality, which made Chotto Desh such a good fit for Every Child a Theatre Goer. As a venue programming for culturally and socio-economically diverse audience, it is crucially important to reflect our audiences’ experiences on stage. The resonance of this work was demonstrated in the children’s feedback:

'I was really interested in a play about my country'

'It was in Bengali
, and I’m Bengali so it was very weird'

'When my parents were in Somalia they were to evacuate to London and now they want to go back.'

Tickets are free for Every Child a Theatre Goer but that doesn’t necessarily ensure an audience, and we involve Head Teachers in selecting the production to ensure school buy-in. It needs to feel worthwhile to teachers and we communicate with them to build confidence in the benefit of the experience and curriculum relevance. We add value by offering wrap-around activities like free CPD for teachers in the term before the production. A learning pack pulling out curriculum links was also provided, and we offered an extremely popular (and lively) post-show discussion with the creative team after every show. This high level of engagement also ensures we are delivering the best value for the Council’s investment.

Teacher feedback was resoundingly positive with 94% of teachers stating that visiting a theatre outside of school is an important experience for students. However, cost and localisation were cited as an on-going barrier to making these trips.

Teacher comments included:

'[the show was good for] raising aspirations, especially with children that have Bangladeshi heritage'

'The story was accessible and relevant, especially as many of our students have family ties to other countries, so they identified strongly.'

'That was one of the best trips I’ve been on with school.'

This is the third year that we have worked with Newham Council to deliver the Every Child a Theatre Goer programme. As an art centre, our mixed-economy business model makes it difficult to present long runs of productions. This subsidised programme with a run of about 20 shows is an opportunity to build a deeper relationship with a company, and to ensure that this extends to our audiences. It has become a flagship project for Stratford Circus Arts Centre, and essentialises our mission of bringing the highest quality work to our local audiences.