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On Superheroes, Michael Gove and Facing our Monsters

Gotham City San Francisco

The news in the USA this morning included a story of a five year old boy who is in remission from cancer. The Make a Wish Foundation had put out a call for volunteers to transform San Francisco into Gotham City for a day, so the boy could act out his fantasy of becoming batman. Over 7000 people came forward and during the day the boy, dressed in a superhero costume had the opportunity to battle the joker, rescue a mascot and be presented with the keys to the city.

On another day I might have smiled at the news and moved on, the concerns of my own life taking precedent over this feel good story. But yesterday I was at the 92y Wonderplay conference in New York, and as well as presenting on storytelling and story acting, I was in the audience for a keynote by Stuart Brown on Play and how it shapes the brain, followed by dinner and inspirational conversation with Vivian Gussin Paley, her husband Irving and 92 Y’s director Fretta Reitzes.

Needless to say, I woke this morning with a head full of stories and a heart full of wonder about the power of this thing we call play.

And then I turned on the TV and heard about the boy in Gotham City. How incredible that a whole town joined together to act in the fantasy play of a five year old child. How powerful, that the desire of this boy to be batman touched the hearts of so many, reaching that deep seated need in all of us to play, to act out our stories, to immerse ourselves in a world where we can battle monsters and win.

Yesterday in one of my sessions a man told me that superhero play was not allowed in his setting, and how concerned he was that the boys were constantly told off when these fantasies materialised. I echoed his concern. We talked about the importance for children of confronting their monsters, and how in storytelling and story acting there is an opportunity to share bad guy, good guy play with the whole class. And we talked about how impossible it is to dictate the type of stories that children tell when using storytelling and story acting in its true essence and how this is one of the benefits of approach; you find out what really matters to each child.

And I started to think about the theatre side of my work, and how when I am in rehearsal, what is important to me is the uncensored play of the actors involved. Jacques Lecoq called this state, ‘Le Jeu’, – the playfulness of acting. I see the truth in an actor when they find the play of a situation, they face the monster and fully enter the game of a scene. When this happens, everyone becomes immersed in the altered state that is the signature of deep play.

When as actors we improvise and try out different roles in the pursuit of finding this truth, or rehearse different realities, or push our bodies physically or take risks in a rehearsal room or on a stage, all we are really doing is tapping into the play state we knew instinctively as children, the state we revisited in drama schools, the kindergartens of adults.

And I thought about the man who was deeply unhappy in a setting that banned superhero play, and I wondered whether his school would have allowed the Gotham City exploits of the boy who fought cancer.

And I thought about Michael Gove, and how he is eradicating drama and so called ‘soft subjects’ from his ‘rigorous knowledge-based curriculum’, and how he lives in his own fantasy world, where play doesn’t conform to the notion of what education should be.

And I thought about the businesses that Stuart Brown talked about in his speech, who were struggling to find graduates able to think creatively, to problem solve and find ways to make connections between seemingly disconnected ideas, and how obvious it is that something is very wrong with our education system.

And yet somehow, this boys batman fantasy stimulated the imagination of a whole city, everyone wanted to join in the game.

And I wondered; when 7,000 people turn out voluntarily to take part in a boys superhero play, then surely this is evidence of an intuitive understanding of its value in our lives.

Children are born knowing this stuff and as adults, even when we have forgotten, it only takes something as small as the wish of a child, to reignite the joy of play within us.

Surely its not too big a leap of faith to see the potential of this play in children’s learning. The evidence is there, and yet in both America and England, government departments continue to challenge its value, focusing instead on the rigour of facts and the measurable nature of tests.

Yet somehow, instinctively, we know the value of play. We can see it in the sense of community that was born out of this boys battles both real and metaphorical, his desire to face his monsters and the presence of 7,000 strangers in San Francisco’s Gotham City, eager to join in his game.



The Helicopter Technique of Storytelling and Story Acting

Helicopter with parents and teachers

On Wednesday 16th September 2013, MakeBelieve Arts Creative Projects Coordinator, Ross Bolwell-Williams and Creative Associates Jen Lunn and Mary Watkins completed their Helicopter Technique Level 2.

They each gave a presentation and completed an essay on their chosen theme associated with the Helicopter Technique.

Take a look at a trailer of Jen’s presentation and her essay below:


The Special People

From the very first time I was able to watch children telling their stories and then performing them around a masking tape stage, I was entranced. These children’s capacity to express themselves through story seemed extraordinary but as I witnessed the same phenomenon in classroom after classroom, I began to understand how innate and simple this technique was for these tiny storytellers and performers.

For me, spending an hour scribing stories and then leading their performances is an hour spent in a magical place of princesses, superheroes or bumble-bees; where anything is possible and the imagination in the room is palpable. For the children – it is instinctive, but for the adults – the teachers and the parents we introduce this technique to – it can be strange, challenging and contrary to their long established habits.

And yet I have watched the most sceptical of teaching assistants grow to love these hours and I have seen them start to listen more, engage more and play more. I believe that this technique, and the philosophy that underpins it can impact deeply on the relationships that exist between adults and the children in their lives.

In Tower Hamlets a group of Bengali mothers were terrified to come to a ‘storytelling’ workshop but, over a cup of tea and a biscuit, shared with me beautifully told stories of their own lives and a few weeks later were telling magical stories that they then watched their children perform. Talking to one of these mothers, a month after the project had ended, she told me how she now carried her ‘story book’ around with her everywhere and how her two children and even her husband now told her stories which they then performed as a family together.

In Kent a teacher explained to me that she was correcting the children’s language when narrating their stories around the stage. It was incredibly important to her that she modelled language well, as this was not happening in the children’s homes. I could see her struggling as I explained the reasons why it was important to honour the children’s words around the stage and suggested that she see their language as a form of poetry; special and beautiful. When I returned the following week she was smiling as she told me how she had suddenly understood what I had meant and had begun to speak the children’s words exactly as written.

Vivian’s vision of the teacher learning from the students is at the heart of the relationship shift encouraged by Helicopter work. It encourages us to reflect on the assumptions we make about children, the opinions and attitudes of our own that we impose on them and the frequency with which we misunderstand what they are trying to express – all of which we do often, believing we know best. Helicopter turns us from authority figures giving answers and controlling children’s expression into avid listeners, ready to learn and able to admit our mistakes. In making that shift we take giant steps towards being the special people who inspire and delight.

“Memories of pretend play are often associated with a special person who encouraged play, told fantastic stories, or modelled play by initiating games, who perhaps had a flamboyant personality that inspired imitation or gave wonderful gifts of puppets and picture books or shared exotic travel adventures – who, above all, showed a trusting, loving acceptance of children and their capacity for playfulness.”

(Singer and Singer 1990)