Shedding Light on Inclusivity
Murphy, Mandy, The Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health
The Disability Rights Commission has said that a 'lazy fatalism' has settled over attempts to thwart exclusion and discrimination in society. As our mainstream schools struggle to bring children with disabilities into the fold, where now can they look for inspiration? Mandy Murphy visited the Chicken Shed Theatre Company to find out how performing arts can bring out the best in everyone.
'Imagine I've just given you five chocolate bars. How much energy do you have?' Nothing could have prepared me for the joyous hyperactivity that follows, as 70 seven to nine year-olds stampede around the performing area shrieking and whooping with excitement. Some are supported by their peers or group supervisors, but most importantly each child is playing their part and loving every minute of it.
Children and young people from all walks of life flock to the Chicken Shed Theatre Company to reap the benefits of its unique philosophy and its promise to deliver 'excellence without exclusion'. Today it is Britain's largest inclusive theatre company, providing theatre workshops, professional productions and training programmes to a diverse mix of children and young people eager to be inspired and educated through the medium of drama, music and dance.
The Theatre has been working since 1974 to open the performing arts to all, including those who have traditionally been denied access to mainstream arts activities. The company that started life in a humble chicken shed now boasts a membership of 1,000 together with an ever-growing waiting list, a customised theatre complex in Southgate, North London and 21 community-based outreach programmes. Interested parties from as far afield as Beijing, New York and Buenos Aires regularly contact Chicken Shed to pledge support, seek advice or express a desire to collaborate with the theatre.
Past successes and projects with which the theatre has been involved include appearing at the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of VE day and the Queen's Jubilee Parade, in which students represented 'The Youth of Britain and the Future'. Shrewd pop-pickers may also remember a charity single, ? am in love with the world', which the theatre released for the 1997 Christmas charts in tribute to Princess Diana, who had been a dedicated patron. The song's soloist, Lisa Hermans, is a blind student who is still very much involved with the inner workings of the theatre, often helping to run the Theatre's 'Tales from the Shed' programme, which is aimed at children up to five years of age. "Lisa used to be very nervous when she first started at Chicken Shed and didn't want to communicate with anyone outside of her mother" says Michelle Manzi, Head of Children's Theatre. "But we tried to find out what she enjoyed and gave a place in the sessions to the musical skill that she had. She loves sharing her ideas with Jo Collins, our musical director and one of our founder members. Both sides now benefit from her skill and she brings great energy to the sessions in which she is involved."
One doesn't have to delve deep to find many more examples of young people flourishing under Chicken Shed's allembracing wing and forging friendships with a wide range of individuals. The young man who plays piano for the children has Asperger's syndrome and is extraordinarily musical, with further talents in playing the violin, singing and scoring music. At one point in the theatre session, a young boy breaks away from the group and hunches in the corner, arms crossed, refusing to participate. Instead of ignoring him or forcing him to join in, the teaching staff encourage the other children to incorporate his hand movements into their dance routine, and he is soon back in the fray, eager to join in again. "This way, he feels that he's part of it too," says Suzi Clark-Britton, Head of Marketing and Development at Chicken Shed. "Some children can take time to join in with everyone else, but it just takes patience.
"Another little boy who came to us saw space as threatening and took seven weeks to step onto the gym floor. …