On the 2nd June this year, the Meadows and the Children’s Wood will be the ‘stage’ for a short outdoor performance as part of the 2018 West End Festival. It will be produced by the Glasgow Theatre company Visible Fictions.
I can’t believe I’ve just written the above paragraph.
It seems a long time ago now, but in 2013 (as part of the West End Festival) I first led two creative writing workshops in the Children’s Woods. The idea to do this came from Teresa Lowe, as during the West End Festival in 2012, I led workshops in Hillhead Library and brought two groups of pupils outside the building for a few moments to make notes on everything they observed. The idea behind this task was to encourage the groups to think like a writer. As a writer myself, inspiration never, ever, ever comes while I’m sitting at a screen. The germ of a novel or play begins in the real world; looking, listening, walking, using the senses, being nosey. I see something and start to make up a story about it…just like I used to do when I was a small child. Just as all children do when they are small. Then most of them stop. But more of that later.
The success of the Byres Rd spying task took everyone by surprise, including myself. When each group went back inside to share what they’d seen, they were buzzing with ideas. It was easy for them to begin creating a story with confidence around something that had caught their interest.
Teresa Lowe and I discussed extending the time spent outdoors with subsequent groups from ten minutes to the whole hour session in future. She suggested using the Children’s Wood which at that time was not ‘saved’ for the local community, and so in June 2013, on a gorgeous summer’s day, two different P7 classes from local primaries walked to the Woods with their teachers. Having less than an hour to spend with each class, I simply told them to take in their surroundings with all their senses for ten minutes and daydream, making up stories in their heads and writing down their ideas.
Although tables and chairs were set out for the children in a clearing –classroom style – none of them were interested in sitting formally. Instead, when given their writing task, they took their clipboards and pens and scattered to find their own perches on tree stumps or leaves. One or two children moved away to be completely alone. It helped that there was a makeshift tepee amongst the trees, claimed by the boys. The whole process of the children finding somewhere to work was quite spontaneous and organic and in all
the years I have been working with young people, I had never witnessed groups so and creatively – and willingly – engaged. The outdoor environment awakened and inspired them, and they came up with some beautiful and heartfelt fragments of writing that we shared under the trees of the Children’s Wood before they left.
I felt as if I had just scratched the surface of something. The children’s idea were too good to be undeveloped.
The following year I was back again when the overall theme of the WEF Children’s Literature strand was fairies and elves. A group of ten Primary Seven pupils were set free to explore under louring skies. This time, with permission from their teachers, I encouraged the pupils to wander freely in the woods providing they came back to our meeting point when I rang the bell I had brought. I don’t think the children expected to be given such free reign and a few were reluctant to wander off alone, sticking with their friends. I had to keep pointing out to anyone who wouldn’t separate, that writers don’t operate this way. They need to be alone for their imaginations to click into gear.
When we reconvened to swap stories, each pupil led the group to a place that had stimulated their imagination. And their stories were literally magical. One boy walked us along a grassy pathway but stopped us where we could best see where the sun glinted through the leaves of two interlocking trees which formed an archway. Beyond them, he told us, the pathway turned into another kingdom, in another dimension and if we went passed through we could never return. Another walk led by two girls took as to a tree, heavy with elderflowers. The girls told us that at night, when there were no humans in the woods, each petal of the elderflowers burst into light and underneath them the fairy-folk came to meet and dance. And then there was the treehouse one animated boy jumped all over as he pointed out the different portals he had found. These led to kingdoms ruled by the various good and evil potentates of the parallel universes that he had conjured as he climbed and swung over the actual stimulus to his imagination.
As each child described what he or she ‘saw’ in the Woods, there were gasps of surprise and delight from their fellow classmates. And bigger ones from me. The creativity these children displayed was beyond anything I had heard in a formal classroom setting.
And how effortless the process seemed. The confidence each child had in her/his idea such a contrast to the norm in class-based creative writing workshops in secondary schools where far too many young people claim they can never think of anything to write about and never have any decent ideas.
Most important of all, I felt the ideas each group I worked presented were far too good to waste, as was the setting which had inspired them. They were dramatic, supernatural, mysterious, frightening, funny… As individual as each child and her/his imagination is individual and limitless. I wondered if I might find some funding to develop a site-specific piece of theatre in the Woods. It would be devised by young people and produced by professional creatives.
From the outset, the idea of doing this was met with total positivity and enthusiasm. Emily Cutts and Teresa Lowe were behind me. I had a director and musician on board. I had support from Imaginate, an organisation which promotes theatre for young people in Scotland and who helped me complete a funding application to Creative Scotland.
Unfortunately, the project was rejected for funding by Creative Scotland and the idea lay fallow. In the meantime, I continued to lead sessions in the Children’s Woods with young people from local primary and secondary schools. Without exception, the quality of imaginative ideas the Woods inspired were consistently high. (Incidentally, a similar outcome resulted whenever I took groups of young people outside anywhere as part of Creative Writing sessions in other schools. Outdoor stimulus feeds the imagination regardless of the locale.)
When the Children’s Wood and North Kelvinside Meadows were ‘saved’ Emily Cutts and Teresa Lowe approached me again to revisit the abandoned project. This time, as a registered charity eligible for funding, the Children’s Wood could approach Creative Scotland with far more clout that me as an individual. With myself on board as writer, we would engage a team of professional theatre-makers and produce a short play. To ensure our application stood as good a chance as possible for funding, I approached the producer, Laura Penny of Glasgow theatre company Visible Fictions for help with structuring a budget. The next day, out the blue she offered to produce the entire project for Visible Fictions.
On the 2nd June, as part of the 2018 West End Festival, the Children’s Wood and North Kelvinside Meadows will be the site of a short play. It will have been entirely devised by twelve Primary 7 children from St Charles. They will be supported by a writer, director, designer, site manager and actor. At the time of writing this blog the children don’t know the initial ideas they came up with during a day I spent with them are to be given life and breath following a week of intense development.
I hope some of you reading this will come along and see what happens when, as one of the pupils said last week when we first met in the Woods, ‘I remember what it’s like to be three again,’ and let her imagination take flight.