Mister Gravel was a Travel Cup. He really didn’t want to spill the drink, but could carry all kinds of drinks for his owner. “Coffee, cappuccino, tea, hot chocolate, milk, Seven Up, Sprite, Coke, Diet Coke, Pepsi, Fanta, Dr Pepper, Pepsi Free and water…..and juice.” (As you can imagine it’s a bitch to learn.)
Mister Gravel was unlucky in love. (Again I hadn’t even told 8 year old Aliyah I was single. She just smelt it.) One fine day, whilst reading “How to get a girlfriend” in the park he met Sally, the Sardine. She needed someone to help her get out of her tin. Together they fell in love despite the odd advice in the book. They danced into the sunset.
That was my first role for Scene and Heard. Based in Camden, it’s a charity that helps empower kids from one of the poorest estates in London. They work with the kids from Somers Town Estate, and help them understand that they can make an impact. I just went to see an example of their work, and it was – as always – revealing and beautiful.
Starting as early as 8, the kids can go to a club near their estate and get involved. Now, after 18 years, it’s a known quantity in the area. After a while some of them get involved in “Playmaking 1”.
I only know their journey from one angle, that of the actor, coming in on their journey and helping as we can. The programme is supported by so many volunteers: dramaturgs, composers, prop makers, costume designers, stage managers, directors etc etc. Everyone is giving their time for free for these kids. It’s about making them understand concretely that they can impact the world around them. Among other things.
Here’s how it works for an actor volunteer:
5pm on a weekday. You’ve likely been working doing something you hate. You’re struggling with the old self loathing about lack of consistent income, or you’re minted and struggling with pride and integrity and all that. You sit for an hour and talk to a child who is starting from a much tougher place than you can contemplate with all of your middle class guilty concerns. You even have time to feel bad about having the headspace to be guilty when put into perspective. Then you actually start to listen to the kid. The kid is smart and they’re listening to you. They ask really incisive questions about what matters. You find yourself reflexively being baldly honest and detailed. You tell them things you never even told your pillow. You let go of your crap.
The kid then writes a script with a dramaturg. They have to make it a scene between two things, rather than two people. It’s fair game, as long as they don’t write for Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber. A necessary rule. No people.
Our job as actors is to honour their script exactly as written. The grammar we speak may be strange, and frequently it’s broken, but we have to make it our choice to express our thoughts that way. They always cut to the quick, the thoughts. These kids often have a tighter insight into how to solve interpersonal problems than we do, even if the characters are A Missile, Geography, A Pickle, Spain, Regret, A Blush, A Shoe, A Seagull. The plays they’ve written are always human.
At the end of each of the ten pieces, the actors bow once. Then the child playwright comes down from their throne (they get to sit in a throne when their piece is playing). They bow a lot more than the actors. Everything is predicated to making sure that they understand that this is their creation. It is their words and thoughts that have entertained this full house of strangers. They get some agency out of it.
It’s a lovely charity and I’m thrilled to be involved. So far I’ve only played to my strength by acting. But there’s lots of room for all skillsets. Before long I’ll try and dramaturg. I haven’t before because of my infinitely changing availability. I could never build props, they’d fall apart, but if I’m free then there’s always envelope stuffing to be done. The shows are always free for audiences, but always sold out. You get to see the results of a highly qualified and focused team of professionals supporting the work of a child playwright, and playing to their strengths. I have witnessed some of the funniest and most touching bits of theatre that I’ve ever witnessed through this charity.
Here’s the photo they posted after my last outing, courtesy of Ahsan.
I was a mole that helped a broken missile become a robot, channeling my ability to fix people. Unfortunately I had overlooked that the robot wanted to kill all things, so once it was fixed I was the first to go. My last words were “If you kill me, just leave everyone else alone. If you find my family … leave them alone. Goodbye.”
This evening I saw my friend Dissy as a sausage dog. I saw my friend Jo as The Movie “Corpse Bride”. And I watched numerous less close friends anarchically examine the human condition via naive strength and forced invention. It’s a beautiful charity. Worth getting involved.