Back in 2008 I ran a project with the Mary Hare School and the Corn Exchange in Newbury. It was an inspiring time and something I’m enormously proud to have been part of. Jason, one of the brilliant participants, wrote and sent me his memories of our work together – I hope you’ll find it as joyful a read as I did…
BIRTH OF THE “COMMUNE DE KATE” ISLAND
Johannes Von Stumm came to Newbury Greenham Arts, where I met him to discuss the community arts project I was involved in. As we went to the Robin Hood roundabout on a cold Tuesday morning in February, we met up with Johannes and Jon Spooner, an actor who was going to work with my group from Mary Hare. We walked to the Robin Hood roundabout and we looked at the sculpture Johannes had made which was called ‘Couple in Conversation’. It was settled in the middle of the roundabout. There were many passer-bys watching us as I think they’ve never seen so many people gathered outside a roundabout!
We discussed about what we thought of the ‘Couple in Conversation’. We all agreed that it looked peaceful in the middle of the island, even though there is chaos all around it. The couple look like they are excluded from the real world and they are in their own world, ignoring the real problem we have these days. This piece gives me a rhetorical question every time I think about it; could we ever give up everything and just be in peace with someone else and forget the world.
We went back to New Greenham Arts and we all sat down to watch a presentation made by Johannes about the process of him making the ‘Couple in Conversation’ and he says it took him many years to sponsor him to make it and another year to make the actual piece. He commented on the light and dark effects the piece has, as the couple seems to reflect each other but also opposing each other. I thought to myself that this was a clever way of explaining how the couple works and in my mind I remembered the saying ‘Opposites attract.’
We then talked about the precision and time taken to make the piece and I felt admiration for Johannes as he had so much patience and I think it was worth the wait as the ‘Couple in Conversation’ had so many ideas branching out into many different things such as workshops!
We then said thanks to Johannes and went into a room with Jon Spooner. We all sat down and we all introduced ourselves to Jon. I felt slightly intimidated by his powerful presence as I was sitting next to him. Jon was confident and enthusiastic about this workshop, inspiring us to feel part of something which was clever. We all discussed the effects of the piece again and what it made us think about. Tayla said that it was as if the couple were talking to each other, ignoring everyone else and the world was going by, all around them and it kept on changing while the couple just stayed the same. We all felt that it was a striking piece and I might even go as far to say it was thought-provoking in some ways.
We then got a sheet of paper and had to remember a place we had been to once or twice and felt good being there, and write about what we remembered doing there, what happened there etc and draw a bird’s eye view/ map of the place. We all split up all over the room to start drawing this. I felt slightly stupid at the beginning but eventually I remembered a place I went to last year in South France and I drew a map and I wrote up what I knew about the place and made up what I didn’t to add some interesting things to read about. We all then walked around looking at each other’s work when we finished and we then sat down around paper which took up a quarter of the room. Jon said that we had to write one word about the couple around the edge. We did so and then Jon gave us a challenge. We had to draw an island, with boundaries and places, landmarks, ordinary buildings of our own, completely from our imagination and by doing so, without talking to each other. We weren’t allowed to sign too! We did this and took a long time drawing the island and we realised we had to work together to make sure the island made sense by watching what other people was drawing. This was a form of communication. And it was about to play a very big part in our project.
DEVELOPING THE IDEA OF “COMMUNE DE KATE” ISLAND
We all came back to the workshop in Arlington Arts two months later due to terrible scheduling! But we all managed to remember slightly what we did last time and introduce ourselves slowly to Jon again. We were about to work together for the next 4 days and little did we know, we would be going a journey of new found confidence and embarrassing moments!
We started off with some drama exercise including the Power Shower. This was something that everyone liked but felt too stupid to do! We all had to use our hands to pat the person’s body repeatedly over a part of their body like a shower and then mover it around the body, warming up their muscles also. Then we did some moving exercises and we were warmed up. Jon said that there were many forms of communication these days. Letters, texting, signing, cryptic messages even talking. But how do we communicate with someone we don’t know or haven’t seen for a long time. We all said by saying hello. But Jon said we normally say hello by waving our hands or saying it. But could we communicate saying hello with different body parts? We tried to do so with our legs, feet and knees and the result was a lot of wobbling and laughing. But Jon said that if we could communicate by using a secret language or something else by just touching each other in a specific part of the body such as shoulders.
He told us to split into groups and we had two rules. We were allowed to mime only in an abstract way not in the realistic way. And we were not allowed to talk. We found this difficulty and then I paired up with Kirsty and we were talking about her lunch which was an apple and then she came up with a brilliant idea. Could we communicate to each other by giving the other person an object of kindness, in our case, a Golden Delicious apple? Jon said we could so we set about making our short piece of drama. We decided to pretend to be two strangers walking in a crowded place and then bump into accidentally, one of them holding an apple in their hand and then giving to it to the other person in a way of saying hello and apologizing at the same time. Kirsty came up with another brainwave as well. Why not repeat the same process and then rewind it backwards and forwards? We did so and we felt proud of our piece.
We all showed our drama pieces to each other and then Jon chose mine and Kirsty’s and Hassan’s and Mel’s. We all taught it to everyone in the group and then we continued developing the drama pieces. We then got together and split up into two groups; one bigger and the other one smaller. Jon gave us a card which said ‘More exciting than Italy ‘and then we had to make a drama piece out of that. We all found it difficult and then decided to do something based on a theme park as it was exciting. We all then agreed on imitating a rollercoaster, by suing abstract miming with one of our arms pretending to be the safety belt and then our other arm to hold on to the rail in front of us. We all screamed as if we were in a real rollercoaster ride and we moved our bodies side to side at the same time it shows the audience where we were going on the rollercoaster such as sharp turns or loops etc. But Jon gave us a surprise twist. He asked us what our favourite foods were and I said mine was chocolate. He said we had to sing in an operatic voice saying our favourite foods’ names and do it on the rollercoaster at the same time!
We practised and after several ‘rides’, we were killing ourselves with laughter. We started to bond as a group ands started to understand what we were capable of and challenging ourselves to push each other into new, brave territory.
THE COMMUNE DE KATE ISLAND!
The day before the final performance where the other 2 schools took part in this workshop would be coming together to join us for a final showdown, we started to focus on the island. Jon asked us to remember the island we drew on paper the first time we came together 2 months before. We did, and Jon said by using the ‘Couple in Conversation’ we were going to make our own island and base our pieces on it and draw the island at the same time. Sounds daunting? But Jon decided to push us to our very limits. We had to write about a memory, our thoughts of this imaginary island or write a postcard to someone else from the island about the island. We spent half an hour doing do and then Jon gave us a piece of chalk and we drew the island. We had to write a story the places we decided to draw and it had to be made up using our imagination. But Jon gave us some hints and places he made up and we had to draw them and continue some of the stories he had made up too. At the end, we all stood away from the island and discussed on where we would do our drama pieces on it and making the island the right size. Jon said that he was becoming proud of our determination but to be honest, at that very point, I was knackered.
The day of the performance! Other schools came, very official council people came and many more people. Families and other project leaders came together on this day and we all felt nervous. We rehearsed our piece and looked at the other groups’ work. They did some paper maché work on forms of movement. We then realised a lot of things we did for this performance. We had based the whole workshop on Johannes’ piece ‘Couple in Conversation’ because we had so much different ways of working together, sharing special bonds with each other silently and communicating through the power of actions and movements. The other school did a dance involving very abstract movement and they also used the theme of relying on each other when they needed each other. When it all came together, I was amazed by the fact that one day, we just looked at a bronze piece on a roundabout and it brought up so many controversial topics and human beliefs such as helping each other, when you know you need them and through the power of communication, we could do so many things in this world today and we took them for granted.
When we did the final performance, pulling it off spectacularly, we all felt proud and more confident compared to the shivering wrecks we were when we first started doing this workshop! We thanked Jon for helping us and giving us such a memorable time and we all felt part of a team- a really good one that is and that feeling was something this inspiring workshop did. Every time I see that roundabout and that astonishing bronze couple, standing there, proud and tall, I smile as I think of all of the good that has come of this original workshop.
Thanks Jason, Ms McKenna and all of you at Mary Hare.