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Last night I went to the launch of the Safer Streets Drama Project. It’s a programme for schools, youth groups and young offender institutions run by TenTen Theatre.

The heart of the programme is a play called Sam’s Story. You see a boy lying in a pool of blood. Sam stands over him, a knife in his hand, wondering how he had got to this place. And then we look back on the months leading up to this tragedy, and try to understand how a 15 year old boy with a good heart and a loving mum ends up in prison for murder. It was heartbreaking to watch: the pressures put upon him, the choices he made and perhaps couldn’t not make, the unravelling of his relationship with his mum…

You can see a trailer for the project here.

It wasn’t just the power of the drama that impressed me, it was seeing how drama could be used to open up issues for young people in the follow-up sessions, and actually help them to reshape their lives and their choices. Drama, and the reflection that goes with it, can be a powerful tool for conversion.

Colleen Prendergast, who plays Sam’s mum, writes about her experiences of being involved in the workshops:

Ten Ten are setting up in a school hall. Children drift in to buy breakfast, peering curiously round the half open door of the hall. Bells shrill out as we put the last chairs in place. We’re getting ready to perform a scene from ‘Safer Streets – Sam’s Story’ to an assembly for Year Nine.The scene we’ve chosen to perform – an argument between Sam and his mum – provokes gasps and flurries of movement from the audience. The relationship between the characters – personal, real, believable – is what grips the students.

[In the workshops] we introduce the concept of the ‘thoughts, feelings, actions’ triangle, and work in small groups to identify moments where Sam reactions could have been different. We look at tiny changes in one of the areas and how they impact on the outcome for the characters. With this one exercise, we can see the students making the connection between their emotions and their behaviour. One boy raises his hand. ‘If you choose to change one thing, they all change, don’t they?’ he asks. ‘Is that a choice you can always make?’ Anthony, the facilitator, asks the class. Yes, they nod. It is.

Some of the lads, in particular, are keen to preserve their ‘hard’ image. One boy sprawls across the floor. He describes himself as a ‘G-man’ – a gangster. At fourteen, he may not be part of an actual gang yet, but the idea clearly holds attraction for him, giving him identity and status.

Over the week, we work with these groups again and again. Each time we introduce a new concept, relating it to the play. We deal with themes of belonging, peer pressure, relationships, goals and dreams. It’s evident that these kids live in the moment; they are constantly jostling for status and attention, demanding respect from their peers but not necessarily giving it in return. It’s our job to give them alternatives.

Through the exercises, we begin to explore how they can shape their future and their identity from their inner choices and attitudes. That concept – of vision, of possibilities, of self-determination – is what marks us out as different. One girl dominates the group. She’s tall, striking, with a distinctive voice. Whatever we ask her to do, she does with gusto, but we can see she’s used to pulling focus. Yet those qualities – confidence, a desire to be the centre of attention, physical presence – that might make her a disruptive influence, are also the qualities that might give her focus and direction. After the class, as she’s gathering up her things, I go up to her. ‘Can I have a word?’ Her face shuts down – she’s guarded, mistrustful. It’s clear she’s expecting to be told off. ‘Have you ever thought of joining a drama group?’I ask her. ‘No,’ she says warily, ‘why?’ ‘Because I think you’d be good at it,’ I say simply. Her face suddenly softens. ‘Do you think so?’ She looks younger somehow, flushed with praise. ‘Yes. I do.’ And I leave her to think about it as she goes to her next class.

On the final day, we set up once again. This time, the students are primed – they’ve been working with us for a week, and have a sense not only of the characters but of the deeper concepts behind the play. I hear little gasps of recognition as something we’ve suggested in the workshop suddenly connects with the events of the play. There is laughter – the piece is, in places, very funny – and shouts of outrage at some of the choices of the characters. Yet by the end of the play, as I get up to deliver my final speech, I see one of the ‘hard’ lads surreptitiously wiping away tears.

In the plenary session, the kids are animated but respectful. When Anthony describes a triangle in the air with his hands, they immediately know what concept he’s referring to. ‘Thoughts, feelings, actions!’ they call out. ‘Change one, you change the rest!’ Anthony draws a Venn diagram – they know, instantly, that he’s talking about the different ‘circles of belonging’ – areas of your life where you feel under pressure to behave a certain way, and what choices you can make. The themes of the play have connected with them on a deep level. Sam’s story has become their story.

The week is over and we’re clearing away. I reflect on what a privilege it’s been to be involved with this project, giving young people a sense of possibility, of the future, of what they can achieve and who they can be. But I wonder if they will act on those possibilities. Suddenly I see a movement at the corner of my eye. It’s the tall girl from earlier in the week, waving to attract my attention. Her face is shining, and she calls across the hall, ‘I’m going to be an actress! Watch out for me on the silver screen!’ I wave back and she disappears out of the door. I carry on clearing away with a grin on my face. I believe her.

I’m sure this isn’t in the programme notes, but this is an Aristotelian conception of virtue – of how even within the most constrained circumstances we can rethink what is important to us, and begin to change our lives by making better choices and holding onto higher values.

Do look at the TenTen website. And if you are a teacher or youth worker do get in touch with them and make a booking.

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