Local Heroes

I retired from King George (and teaching) in July 2003. I’d reached 60 in April and thought I needed a career change—or progression, rather, for I intended to move full-time into theatre. Ironically, however, one of my first jobs as a freelance theatre-maker was in education.

I had a phone call from TEDCO asking if I’d like to be involved in a new schools’ project, Local Heroes.

“I’ve retired from teaching,” I replied.

They knew that, they said, but what they wanted was for me to be the overall director. Two schools from adjoining areas (for example, Jarrow School from South Tyneside and Heworth Comprehensive from Gateshead) would join together to produce a short play about a local hero. The areas involved, in addition to South Tyneside and Gateshead, included Northumberland, Newcastle, North Tyneside, Co Durham and Teesside.

The play from each grouping of two schools would be created by the students involved under the direction of a theatre professional and the plays would be performed at The Sage, Gateshead. My job would be to visit each group to make sure that everything was going well and sort out any problems, and then to organise the programme for and the running of the performance evening. TEDCO would take care of booking the venue, organising and paying for transport and other expenses.

I said I’d do it and started visiting the groups. I’d just done my first trip, to Northumberland, when I had another phone call. It appears the 'director' of the ST / Gateshead group had done all the preparatory work, discussing the theme, improvising and so on but he didn’t believe in performing—drama, he said, was about process, not presentation—so his group would not be producing a play.

He was sacked on the spot and, since it was late in the day, I would have to take over. There was a meeting at Heworth after school that evening, so could I go and be introduced to the group?

What else could I do? I went, someone from TEDCO explained that their previous group leader had 'left' and I would be taking over to create the play.

I had been worried that there would be resentment at my taking over from their leader but was much relieved to find that they too were relieved! They’d signed up for a performance and were worried that they weren’t going to get one. In fact, there’d been desertions because of this and there were only six left, three girls and three boys. They were worried that that wouldn’t be enough.

We talked; they told me who they’d considered to be their heroes; they showed me the notes they’d made on these potential heroes (Alan Shearer, Ellen Wilkinson and Rowan Atkinson) but they were still worried—they couldn’t agree on their hero and didn’t think they could get the play done on time.

So I suggested that I would write the play, basing it on their research and ideas, and that I would have it ready for them by the next meeting, in two days. They agreed and so I went away and wrote the piece faster than I’d ever written a play in my life—about twelve hours!

It was a play about trying to decide who was the local hero. It had six characters, three boys and three girls and they had the same names as the members of the group. And the hero?

Well, they didn’t have one. There were three contenders—you guessed it, Alan Shearer, Ellen Wilkinson and Rowan Atkinson!—and the play was about arguing about who they would choose—which, of course, involved saying why they saw them as heroes. There was quite a lot of humour in it, arising from the characters’ personalities, and they couldn’t make up their minds so the play ended with them heading off to the meeting at which the decision would be made, still arguing—in fact, a slanging match between the girls (so much more mature, of course!) and the boys (because the girls didn’t know what they were talking about, did they?).

Meta-theatrical or what? But it was a new idea to the kids and they found it quite exciting.

It was hectic, running that group and trying to make sure all the other groups were going well (which—thank goodness!—they were because they had very good people in charge). I drove hundreds of miles around the North East and really earned my money on that one, but I enjoyed it.

And it was great working in an iconic building like The Sage. We were in the Small Hall (Hall 2) and inevitably parents, relative, mates from school, teachers, all wanted to see what had been achieved by all the groups so we had a completely full house.

What a marvellous start to freelance career number 2!