What are you going to do with people’s lives? – Richard Holmes, Artistic Director, Big Brum TIE

As part of the event on 1st July, Richard shared some thoughts about Drama, young people and society. These form part of Big Brum’s new five year plan, which we share below.

“What are you going to do with people’s lives?”   This was the question a seven year old child asked Sadiq Khan at the base of Grenfell Tower, the afternoon after the fire.

It’s such a radical, basic thing to ask, but it opens up the problem of modern society and of course of Drama. Of course, the boy is thinking of what he, they, and that, will make of his own life.  The Lord Mayor of London couldn’t answer him.

Young people always ask the profoundest questions, questions which get to the guts of being human: the young don’t measure the worth of life in relation to the Gold Standards; they feel the life and death of others in a most uncompromised manner. Kai’s question was directed at the Mayor, but it’s a question for us all. How then do we go about answering him?

I experience from those that don’t work with young people that they wonder if Big Brum’s plays and programmes might make too many demands on young audiences. But they don’t. They open up areas that young people are aware of, fundamental aspects in reality that hardly anyone speaks to them about. The plays of Big Brum ought to be the work Big Brum does.

Big Brum believes Art is a mode of knowing and shouldn’t be used as a tool to tell or transmit knowledge or understanding. How, then, do we enable children to understand their world?

“Real understanding is a process of  coming  to understand: we cannot ‘give’ someone our  understanding. Real understanding is felt. Only if the understanding is felt can it be integrated into children’s minds” – Geoff Gillham

What are you, we, humanity going to do with people’s lives?

We all need story. It’s as if it’s in our DNA, and combined together our stories make our culture. Humans are philologically guided to telling stories.

All stories have a centre. The centre is both universal and particular; it concerns itself with human purpose, the need for justice, but through a particular situation. The centre of any story isn’t fixed, but relates to the centre of the world’s situation and will change as the world’s situation changes.

I believe we are living in a world in crisis. This crisis is not only economic but cultural, social and moral. Our humanity is in crisis. Our humanity is both the perpetrator and the victim of the crisis. This crisis has rendered society lost. It has lost its moral compass. People are literally and metaphorically displaced from their homes, themselves and each other.

“What are you going to do with people’s lives?”

The lives of the people in Grenfell Tower where measured in pounds and pence, which is why their homes were unsafe, which is why they lost their lives in such a violent manner. How can a society that has lost its moral compass answer Kai’s question? I understand why Khan couldn’t answer him. Where do you start?

Humans can’t live like this. because we are both social and moral: humans need and want to explain their situations, and I believe we can only really know ourselves through our stories. At the heart of every story is the search for justice, because at the heart of all human situations is the same search. Without story we have no community; without community we have no humanity.

“In a fairy story a witch is a ‘problem’. But there are no real witches. So in a fairy story a ‘problem’ (the witch) was used to explain life or some particular ‘problem ‘in life. In a play about, say, drug taking, drugs are a ‘problem’ in a way in which witches aren’t. We talk of ‘cures’ for drugs and other real ‘problems’. A story about a witch is not a ‘cure’. Art is not a ‘cure’. It provides patterns of reason and tension which organise our experience and give meaning to life – and thus purpose … all important drama has shown that there are no ‘ cures’ for the problem of being human. Just as there are ‘ facts’ which constitute ‘knowledge ‘ … there must be a simple story-incident which enables a young audience to experience this – and so become self-creative. Art must always pass responsibility back to the spectator. The artist is creative in order to make the audience self-creative. That is, neither ‘cure’ nor mere propaganda” – Edward Bond

Children are self-creative through play / in their enactment. The imagination is the invisible ‘human hand’. In play children seek justice. In play children create themselves. They are their imaginations.

Vygotsky recognised that play was neither primarily for pleasure or purely an intellectual activity. He understood the unity of these opposites. Play is where the child’s ‘unrealisable tendencies and immediately unrealisable desires’ concerning their life can be met.

In play the child can create an imaginary situation where they can explore the meaning of being human through the manipulation of time, space, objects and actions that ‘real life ‘denies them. Young children externalise their exploration of what the world is doing with their lives. What a child does alone in play, we do socially in drama.  Dramatised stories have the potential to, similarly, offer space where meaning can be made. The work Big Brum creates, like the child’s play, exists in a world where ‘unrealisable tendencies and immediately unrealisable desires’ permeate.

The Company is where it is, at this moment in time. However, as someone once said, Man makes its own history just not in the times of its own choosing, and Big Brum – guided by the theory, principles and practice of its history – will continue to develop work that creates space for young people to be self-creative. This is a challenge for the present company.

Big Brum has begun to develop a 5-10 year plan. The umbrella title will be “seeking the displaced child”. The programme of work will offer stories and programmes whose centres address questions of displacement: a developing of the last two years’ work.

The centre of Macbeth was, “Where the imagination has been corrupted, lies have become social truths and social truths have become lies. We are all lost in what we fear but don’t know what we are frightened off. Young people are not safe or happy in this world?”

And Rumpelstiltskin,” Our culture has become corrupted by the needs of the market. Who owns the world owns the child life, who owns the child’s life owns the world. How can our children survive and discover their worth in a world that values only the market?”

The canon of work of the next five years will incorporate classic texts such as adaptations of Jekyll and Hyde, Hansel and Gretel, another Shakespeare, as well as new commissions from Edward Bond, Mark Ravenhill, Chris Cooper, and new writers such as Sam Holley-Horseman, Suriya Aisha and Panna Bodor. The Company wishes to explore the option of commissioning work for special projects from children’s writers such as Phillip Pullman, Anthony Browne or Shaun Tan, as well as developing our international work.

Big Brum has a vision for Sheldon Community Centre as the “Home for the Displaced, a space where the most vulnerable people in this community can feel safe, local residents, refugees, the homeless and old and young alike. The first step will be to create a social eating space in the kitchen area, where free food can be offered for those that need it, and for those that might not need food but need company. We also seek to make it the home of the ‘Dramatic child’. Beginning with the young people’s theatre company that we are seeking funding for, then we will offer other arts experiences once established here in Sheldon

Training will be a key focus for the Company over the next ten years, in order to develop the next generation of Company members, equipped to run the Company, which will sustain and take forward the values expounded in this report.

With its new home, an exciting canon of work and a commitment to training, the Company has a vision for future of growth and development, one that is sustainable and one that funders will want to support.

Richard Holmes (Artistic Director), 06-07-17


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