The following story appeared in the International Heritage Interpretation News Magazine on March 2013. It provides an insightful account of what can be achieved in inclusive museum programming for young people with an innovate approach to museum interpretation.
“Welcome to Cottopolis” – Museum interpretation with children and young people with special educational needs through performance
Wet washing, a dragon’s sharp claws, cotton bobbins, giant pop-up books and an emotionally distraught puppet – what do they all have in common? They are all part of Peoplescape Theatre’s participatory performance for children and young people with special educational needs (SEN). The project was planned and delivered by Emily Capstick, Joint Creative Director of Peoplescape Theatre.
‘Welcome to Cottonopolis’ is funded by the Arts Council England, National Lottery ‘Grants for the Arts’ and was developed with three cultural organizations in Greater Manchester: the John Rylands Library, Salford Museum and Art Gallery and the People’s History Museum. It has developed out Peoplescape Theatre’s work, of the last six years, with the Museum of London (MOL) and Museum of London Docklands (MOD). Peoplescape Theatre specializes in using performance for interpretation in museums and other cultural venues with people of all ages and abilities. Our work is participatory, multi-sensory and aims to actively engage people with individual creative, emotional and intellectual responses.
Aims of the project
When Verity Walker, Interpretaction evaluated the performance ‘Over the Sea to London’ (MOD), she observed that there can be a tendency to offer an outreach visit to groups from special schools; often originating from an appreciation of how difficult it can be to take a group out. However, it is widely acknowledged that experiencing new places, activities and people is highly beneficial for everyone. Our aims for ‘Welcome to Cottonopolis’ are 1.) to make their visit as easy as possible (looking at access and possible causes of anxiety by understanding the needs of each particular group and individuals within that group) and 2.) to offer a high-quality experience that makes it worth their while coming out.
Another aim of the project was to build relationships between cultural venues and special schools (and schools with specialist support provision) so we worked with three different organizations which also enabled us to offer more opportunities for skill development amongst staff and volunteers. A class teacher at Lancasterian School told us that the parents, carers and families of children at the school are far more likely to make their own.
Workshops as part of the creative process
As a key part of devising the performance, we facilitated six workshops with young people with SEN. Three groups would have their first workshop in school and a second workshop at one of the cultural venues. The children involved were aged between 10 and 16 and had a wide range of needs including autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), sensory impairment, Down Syndrome and communication difficulties. Matt Wardle (drama specialist and SEN teacher), the young people and I were excited to experiment with innovative combinations of performance techniques; for example, forum theatre with puppetry.
From these workshops, we decided…
1. Young people being actively involved in creating something beautiful/interesting that the puppet will experience
2. Lots of aesthetics – we will make something beautiful
3. We will facilitate the activities in-role (as a character)
4. Live music – singing & instruments
We will meet the young people out of role
6. It should last between 45mins to 1hr
7. There should be a child puppet
8. Costumes will be visually exciting and tactile
9. There should be other puppets as well
10. A dilemma which can be solved non-verbally
11. Work with the space we have but add something to it – sound, props
12 .Play with scale/ puppets/ people
With previous performances, the puppets have always been animals. We tried working with a non-verbal child puppet for the workshops and the interaction that all the young people had with the puppet was remarkable. We were amazed by their engagement with the puppet and feedback from teaching staff also reflected this. As part of the funding application, we included a week’s mentoring with Horse and Bamboo Theatre, who specialize in visual theatre and puppetry. As well as guiding us through the making process (me with chisel and leather straps and Matt as “The King of Scrim”), Bob Frith, one of the company’s Artistic Directors, gave us directorial input and that invaluable ‘outside eye’. Alison Hale (joint Creative Director of Peoplescape Theatre) came up from London to help Matt and I develop the story and the outreach workshop. Based on the good practice of MOL and MOD, every group had a creative workshop in school before their visit to the venue. This enabled us to meet the young people and to consider the performance, their participation and visit to the venue generally, in the light of their abilities, interests and needs. We introduced the story and some of the historical background to the story. The workshop included live music, large images and objects that could be handled and explored.
The workshops also gave us a chance to introduce the children to one of the puppets. We were aware that puppets can cause anxiety but through humor, character and gentle interaction, we invited the children to engage with the puppet. The workshop also meant that we could welcome the children by name and with a familiar face when they came on their visit.
But I have managed to write a lot without telling you the story! We decided to give the story a historical setting so that there were clear links to the various venues’ collections. Manchester was nicknamed ‘Cottonopolis’ during the industrial revolution. Manchester was the first industrialized city in the world and prospered through the textile industry. Set in Manchester during the reign of Queen Victoria (mid 19th century), the performance tells the story of Bertie and Lily. Bertie loves to read, particularly books about dragons. Lily doesn’t go to school, she works in the mill. Every day Bertie has to go past the mill to get to school. The mill… where the fires are hot, the smoke and dust choke him and the mill machines are loud. Bertie is convinced that there is a dragon in the mill and he just can’t go by… even if his teacher will get cross, his mother will worry and his clothes will get dirty. Can Lily help him?
The feedback From the Schools
‘It should be a fundamental part of each SEN child’s curriculum to have access to such performances’ – Grange School
‘We were very impressed! A lot of thought has obviously gone into this project’ – Delamere School
‘Very intimate, unique experience’ – Piper Hill Specialist Support School
‘Pupils were very excited and really engaged in the story and the setting. It provided an experience that we did not have the skills to deliver ourselves’ – Oakwood Academy
The Manchester Metropolitan University supported the project through the advisory group and evaluation process. They are enthusiastic about working with Peoplescape Theatre in the future. All three venues would like to offer more participatory performances to schools and the public in the future. Peoplescape Theatre would also like to facilitate performances in other cultural venues across other districts in Greater Manchester so that they can build relationships with their local special schools and communities.