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Episode 3 Reflections on Collaborative Learning with Chol Theatre

The Questions & Answer

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Tell us a bit about yourself and what work you do at Chol Theatre?

I’m Jess I am from Chol Theatre, a theatre charity based in Huddersfield and Sheffield. (Although we do work nationally too). We make art and theatre from real and imagined stories, we do lots of school work, we work in everyday spaces, and we try to uncover hidden stories that connect people and communities.

Chol as a company have recently been restructuring and moving towards a new model called the Chol Operative Model which is a broadly flat hierarchy with equal pay for everyone. I am one of three directors and we all work together to make decisions.

What has been your best experience recently working with young people at Chol?

It’s actually something that’s currently happening – we are now running a 12-week young producers programme, for 14–18-year-olds, which culminates in an event that they produce.

The young people have been absolutely amazing and so resilient. We’ve recently been able to resume the programme in real life instead of zoom and they’re getting really stuck in which is great! It’s brilliant to see them, and be back in our space and see all their ideas come to life. What they want to create is really inspiring and pretty cool so I’m looking forward to that.

What kind of event is it that they’re creating?

So, in the space, they’re running a takeover during the day with interactive art pieces in each corner, each of the 9 young producers taking on a different role for it, and in the evening, they’re doing a drag show including a lip sync battle!

We’ve got some really amazing musicians who are creating amazing soundscapes and more and this is the weekend of the 3rd of July.

What kinds of projects and opportunities do Chol offer that young people really engage with?

We do loads of different projects; our school project that we run is called imaginary communities, which is our child-led drama initiative where we create new worlds which are invented with the young people. The idea is that everyone is an equal playmaker, teachers and students alike.

We also have a programme in Sheffield called Tall Shadows which is a young producers intern scheme. This launched March 2020 just before lockdown, we’ve had 8 absolutely incredible young producer interns who have been paid through the internship to create lots of different art pieces and they’ve launched spaces in the town where they can discuss issues that are important to them, put on events, online clubs, film festivals, loads of things.

We also do lots of project-by-project work, so there’s loads of projects in between but mainly over the last couple of years we’ve been working with Imaginary Communities and Tall Shadows.

 How do you assess and improve engagement with young people?

All our practice is reflective and research-led. We make sure that when we are working with young people that we come in with an open mind-set, so sometimes our ideas might turn out not to be that relevant to them and we are open to that. This is also part of why we are moving to the Chol Operative Model, it means we are making the value of co-creation to the core a part of how we work.

We always make sure we have an open dialogue with young people, approaching all the young projects and programmes with “what are we doing?” and more importantly “what are we not doing?” and “are we reaching the young people that we need to?”

We also make sure that, when we are working with young people, all the work we are doing is relevant to them, and important to them. At the end of the day, it’s not worthwhile unless they’re taking something valuable away from it. So it’s really important to be constantly reflective and constantly assessing.

How do you empower young people in terms of their own learning and development?

It depends on the space in which we are working. So for example if we are in schools, regarding autonomy and them being responsible for their own learning and development, we think about direct approaches we can take in a classroom to ensure that their ideas are at the heart of their learning and that it’s all led by their own interests. Whereas if we are working in community settings, we spend a long time, like months, working with community partners to engage young people and have that open dialogue to ensure that the work is relevant and meaningful. By having this conversation and this support in means that they feel involved from the very beginning, and that it’s their project. It makes them feel powerful and valued.

Education is so much broader than what happens in the classroom, and we want young people to feel like they have influence over their own learning.

If you could pick just one main lesson that all the young people that work with Chol could take away from their experience, what would it be?

This comes back to our values. I would like young people that we work with to come away feeling powerful, valued, connected and like they were also a professional taking part in a project that they just did.

When I think about when I was a young person, I remember how intimidating the creative industries can be. I think it’s important that young people feel their ideas are as valuable as the professionals. I would like any young person who’s ever worked with Chol to come away feeling a sense of ownership over what they’ve done.

What kinds of decisions are shared with the young people?

As much as possible where appropriate. It does vary depending on the project, the times-scale, the budget, what exactly it is that we’re doing, but we involve them as much as possible from the start. For example, the Young Producers Scheme is co-created from the very very beginning. We employ those young producers to come in as interns, and they think up what they want to do. Whatever they decide, we go along with that and we support them by bringing in a professional producer who just supports their ideas. And with Imaginary Communities, the narrative is theirs from the start. All their ideas, the world they build, the characters, that’s all theirs.

It does vary but where we can we make sure decisions are left up to them or shared.

Plus, we learn so much from seeing them make decisions that we can apply to future projects.

What has been the most unexpected outcome of working with young people?

I am amazed by all the young people I have worked with over the past year. We have done lots of different projects, mostly digital, and I can honestly say for every single project, every young person has amazed me with their resilience and the way they have adapted. One project I’ll talk about in particular is Made in Huddersfield, which is the project we did with Ignite in Summer 2020, which was off the back of another performance we had done in 2019, Run of the Mill, which was a textiles project, where a group of young people devised a show in a mill in Huddersfield. So we were doing a stage 2 of that on 2020, and originally we were going to be doing a second part of the show, in a different mill, with some of the previous young people and some new people too. Obviously things kept changing and we had to make it all digital. It was the first time we had done something like that, we worked with a filmmaker and a director and it was all done on zoom. And we had planned a day of filming to meet up and film in real life and we were so excited but then the Friday before that was supposed to happen a local lockdown was announced – we were so gutted but the way that they responded to the setback and just carried on, it was like it didn’t faze them, it was incredible!

It inspired me to step up and take a leaf out of their books.

Also, another unexpected outcome form that was the incredible digital performance we did, and its online now so we got this legacy, something they can watch and feel proud of, and it all ran really smoothly – that was totally unexpected, I would never have thought we would be doing that, a year previously. That was so cool.

It’s available to watch online, it’s Chol theatre on Youtube, and it’s called Made in Huddersfield.

What sort of collaborative learning opportunities would you like to be able to offer young people in the future?

In the last couple of months, we have been looking at developing our 10 year strategy. In that strategy we have been very bold. Regarding the future, we want to put Yorkshire on the map for its bold and innovative programme of education, through creativity and care. Thinking about how children and young people across Yorkshire, not just in schools but in communities are feeling supported and nurtured through the experiences that they’re taking part in, in those different settings. A bold ambition but that’s what we’re putting down on paper so that’s what we’ve got to make happen.

Also, we want to roll out the paid internships of our Young Producers Scheme across three different areas of Yorkshire. Also, the Silver Arts Award Young Producers scheme we want to do twice a year. On top of that obviously we have all our other projects that are going on.

What’s the next collaborative project that you are going to be doing?

The next one is in September. We’re doing a Windrush mural project. We are looking at working with young people and putting a permanent piece of artwork that celebrates and commemorates the contribution of the Windrush generation in Kirklees and we are working with Kirklees television, they have 60 hours’ worth of testimonies and archive footage. We are going to be working with young people to create this massive mural in Kirklees and that’s going to be happening in September so we are just in the development and engagement stage right now, so that’s really exciting.

Where can we find you online and social media?

Youtube: Chol Theatre

Twitter: Choltheatre

Instagram: Choltheatre

Facebook: Chol Theatre

Website: www.wearechol.co.uk