The Jazz Shack, a new musical written, produced and performed entirely by young people recently played at The School of Rock and Media in Bradford. We spoke with Rebecca Sykes about how it came to be and the challenges involved.
Rebecca Sykes has been running an organisation called Void Arts for the last 9 years, where she manages and delivers bespoke projects with groups of young people. The projects she runs are primarily based around issues which affect young people. With a degree in Fine Art and an MA in Youth and Community Studies, she blends the two subjects, to engage disadvantaged young people in a variety of creative projects.
Her most recent project involved the development and production of a piece of original musical theatre, working with a group of disadvantaged young people. We spoke with her about what that involved, what challenges she faced and what advice she would give to other arts organisations that want to do a long term project with a group of young people.
Hi Rebecca, first of all, can you give us an overview of this project?
I teamed up with a not for profit organisation based in Bradford called the School of Rock and Media (SORM). The organisation have been running for 6 years and is run by Tony Saunders and John Bolton who both have a wealth of experience in youth work and are both musicians themselves. It’s a kind of combination studio, a place to learn music and a gig venue and they do a lot of workshops with disadvantaged young people, teaching them to sing or play instruments. Although not a youth club in the traditional sense, it has a youth club type of atmosphere. It’s a safe space for young people to learn skills, gain confidence and perform.
They had a group of young people who came to the studios every week, that they didn’t have a firm idea what to do with, so they approached me to see if I could work them on a long term project, that would give them something to work towards and achieve.
One of the members of the group, Garron, had written his own piece of musical theatre and was keen to see if it was possible for the whole group to perform the show themselves. So, taking this as a starting point, we looked into seeing whether or not this was something at all possible to do.
Initially there were 12 young people, who came from different backgrounds, different ages and most had a variety of personal and social issues which effected them. But they all had a passion for music and had been coming to SORM for some time.
We started the project with planning and consultation sessions and that gave me the opportunity to get to know the young people individually, as well as allowing me to see what potential and skills each one had. We identified some of the specific steps we needed to do and I encouraged the young people to come up with their own solutions. For example, we knew we’d need some money, so I helped them apply for funding.
However, this wasn’t as simple as it sounds, because we were refused funding on 8 different applications to different funders, until we managed to get our Awards for All funding on our third try.
The project began to grow and take some shape, after months of discussion and planning. The group knew exactly what they wanted to do with every element of the show, but we needed to make sure that every idea was actually feasible to achieve with the time and budget we had. But the group were so determined and after the first few months they had become a tightly knit working group and they gradually began to believe that this was actually achievable. Through a variety of workshops, their confidence and abilities grew, which saw the group take on all elements of the production. They acted, sung, designed and built the sets, did promotion and designed the tickets. My role was just to manage and co-ordinate everything, keep the momentum going and keep everything on track.
It was so different from my normal work in many ways, because generally you’re trying to engage all the time. This group didn’t need much encouragement to engage with the material, but they had to learn that if they wanted to make it happen, it was up to them. I worked with them to give them the tools and the skills to be able to do this and they knew that I believed in them.
“This is the plan. This is how we can do it. So do you want to do it or not?”
So, what kind of challenges did you face along the way?
One of the biggest issues a project like this will face, is turn over in members. It’s not like a school, so you can’t rely on the group to constantly be there, because things happen. We had quite a few drop outs in the early days and then people joining mid project, which presents its own issues, as you have to catch them up to speed.
The personal and social issues that affected many of the young people involved could also produce problems. For example, there was a very talented young person who had quite a large acting role in the show, but he suffered badly from anxiety and as the show was getting nearer he ultimately decided that he couldn’t go through with it. This happened just 4 months away from the planned performance, which brought the group into a lot of chaos and uncertainty for a while and In that case we actually had to write his character out of the show as a solution to still continue.
We rewrote the show a few times actually. It’s been rewritten about 5 times I think. The first time was after about 2-3 months of planning, when we realised that the idea was far too big to happen. It was just too ambitious. When I realised this, it was my job to tell the group that we were going to have to scale it down. That caused a lot of upset and conflict within the group and people giving up hope, but it was my job to say “We can still make it happen, but how!?”
Eventually Garron re-wrote the show to a manageable size and when we look back on it, that was the right decision. We couldn’t have done that first draft. It was too ambitious. We constantly had to remind ourselves what was achievable in reality. This was a great skill we all learnt throughout the whole project’s process.
Money drove other decisions, such as the venue. We visited a few theatres, but they were just not within our budget. In the end, we decided to make our own stage from scratch and build it and house it at SORM. Although this meant there was even more work to do, the fact that the group did this themselves made their achievement even more rewarding.
About 4 months before the show was to be performed live, I began to think it wasn’t going to happen but eventually, through grit and determination, it just all came together. It was a sell out show every single night.
In every single way it was an empowering project for everybody involved. To have the resilience and drive to achieve this type of work, through so much adversity, is extraordinary for such a group of young people. The completion and the success of the project has now raised the bar on what else can be achieved for this group and each young person has been through an incredible personal journey to get to where they are now.
What’s the show about?
The musical is a dramatic comedy called The Jazz Shack and is inspired by 1940’s cinema. It is set in the 1940’s in a jazz bar. The story begins when we are introduced to 2 women who discover they share a lover. When they realise this man had been cheating on them both, they kill him. As punishment for this murder, both women are forced to become “soldiers of love” when they eventually die themselves. They travel back and forth in time to help other people with their love struggles.
They eventually meet a young woman having issues with her relationship and to help her, they hold a singing competition at the Jazz Shack. So that involves a lot of performances, issues around love.
There’s about 12 songs in the show, a mixture of songs originally from the period, like “Miss Otis Regrets” and also modern songs re-arranged in a 1940’s swing jazz style.
As well as the general story line, Garron also placed a lot of themes in the story that reflect his own experience. It deals with LGBT issues and bullying, particularly around weight.
The reaction to the shows were fantastic. The audiences really engaged with it and we received so much positive feedback on how professional it was. And it was! It looked fantastic and the young people produced such a unique and professional performance. It could very easily not have happened, but as a group, they proved that it could. The potential now for the future is really exciting.
I’m particularly proud of Garron. He ultimately was the driving force of the entire project and although he has a variety of educational issues, he’s a phenomenal writer and aspiring drag queen, with a huge passion for musical theatre. He did performing arts for a year at college, but after that had nowhere else to go, so he wants to start making his own opportunities. His dream is to be a theatre director and writer and I see that potential in him.
Do you have any advice for someone that wants to do a similar project?
If you’re the “artist” and you’re working with a larger organisation, like a school or museum, then one of the most important things to do is make sure that your relationship with them is a good one. Partnering up is advantageous, as it gives you things like venue and support to apply for funding, but you need to make sure that your vision and theirs are the same, so make sure that your goals and the way you work are coming from the same spot. Always communicate.
Try not to be rigid in what you want your outcome to be. Things will inevitably go wrong and with a project like this you can expect cast members to quit, and unforeseen problems to arise. You consistently need to be quick on your feet and apply some creative thinking. What helps with that is, empowering your group to solve the problems themselves, rather than always fixing it for them, because, at the end of the day, it’s their project. For a project to belong to the young people is so much more powerful and empowering for them, than going in with your own plan and hoping they will work around that. You always need to work around the young people, instead of them working around you. Challenges always arise, but you problem solve and you think creatively. This is part of the whole process, so never be frightened of problems arising. There are always a million different ways to reach your goal. If it doesn’t work out the first time, try another way and then another. Your project may not end up how you envisioned. It may end up even better.
The Arts Council Quality Principles and Youth Work principles, which are very similar to each other, are good things to keep in mind as you’re working too. You’ve got to believe in these principles and make them an integral part of your practice. They’re not just a check list. They have to be consistently ingrained in the way you work. If you do it with passion and conviction you will see a difference and it’s all about making a difference and empowering young people to have their voice and help to create change for themselves. You must also believe in the young people you’re working with. See their potential, listen to their voices and be the advocate for them to achieve what is often seen as unachievable. They are always more capable than you think.
If someone is interested in joining the School of Rock and Media, what should they do?
You can find out more about SORM on their website and it’s really easy to sign up to do their classes. It’s a very sociable place with lots of people dropping in to practice or hang out.
If any young person is specifically interested in joining the youth theatre group to be a part of our next show, then they should contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org Garron has already begun writing the next show, so we’re in the planning stages now and we also need to find more funding. We need more people to join us, not only in singing and acting, but for those interested in costume or theatre design, we have big plans for this next one, so feel free to enquire.
If you’re interested in commissioning me for similar work then more information about Void Arts can be found at http://www.voidarts.net/ I work with schools, charities, youth services and community groups and am available for free consultations for your project idea.
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