Shed some light  

Sometimes great ideas spring from the unlikeliest of places. In 1974, an actual chicken shed on the very limits of North London was the venue for one of the first inclusive theatre companies in the UK. Mark Glover uncovers the routes of the Chickenshed.

Susan Jamson, Chickenshed’s Press and PR Manager, has been with the company since 1990, and despite her role being to publicise and promote, her passion for inclusivity within drama was evident and I imagine, the same as it was when Susan first started out.

Susan’s initial introduction and subsequent involvement with Chickenshed however, came out of personal experience; her youngest daughter, Emma, having been diagnosed with Down’s syndrome at birth.

“When you have a child who has Down’s syndrome, people come and tell you things,” says Susan. “Things like ‘she will never say verbs, or she’ll never jump.’ It was all very negative. But when Emma was six, I was told about Chickenshed, and that all the people go on stage together, and I just wanted that ‘together’ part.”

Intrigued, she went to see a performance, interested in how the actors (and those with a disability in particular) would come across on-stage. Her reaction was telling. “I didn’t notice,” she says. “I actually forgot to look, because it was such a good show.”

On her second visit, Susan found herself immersed, blown away by the quality of production and performance. “I was mesmerised,” she recalls. I’d spent the last six years, talking about Down’s syndrome. It was so refreshing to spend an evening not even thinking about it. It changed mine and my family’s life.”

Susan’s positive experience, is ultimately Chickenshed’s goal. Its objectives remain the same today as it was in 1974; to be all-inclusive, not just for those with perceived disabilities, but for those also from an array of background.

The origins of this forward-thinking outfit are fascinating. Musician Jo Collins and Mary Ward, a former primary school teacher, met at a local church in Barnet. Bonding over a mutual interest in the arts, they discussed putting together a theatre company which was to be completely inclusive, open to everyone.

Fortunately, their conversation was overheard by a certain Lady Elizabeth Byng, owner of Wrotham Park (incidentally the venue for Oscar nominated Gosford Park) who suggested the pair use an old chicken barn on site, complete with a bare earth floor and stray chicken feathers. The name stuck and the Chickenshed journey began.

Mary and Jo’s aim, to include everybody and anyone, was established when Andrew Haynes, a boy with cerebral palsy, took part in a Chickenshed performance in the early 80s. It was the children themselves who suggested to the two founders that perhaps there were more people like Andrew, people with perceived disabilities who also wanted to be part of the theatre and might never had had the opportunity.

Inspired, Jo and Mary approached John Bull who worked for Enfield Council running a children’s respite home. The pair suggested he bring along some of the children to one of the workshops.

Susan explains: “John was desperate for his children to join with other local community groups, but people tended to shy away from working with so called ‘disabled or difficult children’, but opportunities to be involved in the mainstream were few and far between – however when John brought along the kids from the respite home, it was a huge success.”

It was the first major step to inclusivity and would lead to John eventually becoming Chickenshed’s Chief Executive for many years and creating a blueprint for the theatre’s strategy.

The theatre’s success soon reached beyond the suburbs of North London, with word quickly spreading of Chickenshed’s pioneering work. Diana, The Princess of Wales, became its Royal Patron and both Dame Judi Dench and Sir Trevor Nunn were announced as pro-active trustees.

Lady Jane Rayne, a passionate advocate of Chickenshed was hugely influential in raising funds, and in 1994 the Rayne Theatre in Southgate was opened, a year later the team went on its first national tour, visiting five cities and 20 schools.

Since then, Jo and Mary have both been awarded MBEs but have stepped slightly behind the scenes. Last year Lou Stein, founder of the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill, took over as Artistic Director, and like Susan, his involvement came from bringing his now nine-year old son Ethan, who also has Down’s syndrome, to the theatre when he was younger.

These days, Lou and his team’s biggest challenge remains trying to make children understand that being labelled with a tag such as ‘special’ does not define them, a tag that was probably given in life outside of the theatre. Susan’s own daughter, Emma, had to sit on a table at lunch with those who had special needs, separate to the other children.

“Chickenshed is about breaking through that barrier,” Susan enthuses. “To show the people that they don’t need to sit on a separate table. At Chickenshed, you are part of Chickenshed.”

She continues: “It’s mostly an understanding that everybody in life is different. It’s a case of looking at each person and really finding out their strengths, acknowledging them and then when you’ve done this, it’s amazing how any other strengths and talents can come to the surface. I haven’t found anyone in this life that can do everything, we all need a helping hand at some time. At Chickenshed we build confidence and encourage people to fly – there is then often no stopping them.”

Chickenshed’s attitude and innovative approach to inclusivity is reflected in its further and higher education programmes.

The theatre offers an Extended Diploma in Performing Arts (equivalent to three A-levels) and a Foundation Degree in Inclusive Performance – run in conjunction with Middlesex University – which can be supplemented by a one year top up course in the same discipline, enabling students to achieve a full BA (Hons) in the subject.

True to Chickenshed’s approach, entry is not achieved through UCAS points and examination outcomes but through life experience. Again, those from an array of backgrounds are invited to apply, offering opportunity for those who have perhaps been excluded from school or have had difficulty accessing education.

“At Chickenshed we build confidence and encourage people to fly – there is then often no stopping them.”

Once accepted though, students are expected, as part of their study, to work within the organisation. “We are a working theatre so they are actually studying and working, but they can leave here with a BA Hons, which really helps when they take their next steps” Susan explains.

Students are also involved with educational programmes that, as part of their outreach, visit local schools who might have experienced gang violence and in particular knife crime; an issue that was particularly close to home for the theatre’s Director of Education and Training, Paul Morrall, whose nephew, Shaquille Smith, was fatally stabbed in Hackney in 2008.

This tragic event became motivation for a Chickenshed production called Crime of the Century, a play that thematically, focuses on the choices that young people have, some of which can have extreme consequences.

“If you choose to carry a knife,” Susan says. This could happen to you. You could be stabbed; you could become the perpetrator. We call it a golden moment. What we are trying to do is to find that golden moment and perhaps change that choice that some people can make.”

In 2009, Crime of the Century was successfully showcased at the Edinburgh Festival, and since then, as well as in local schools, has been presented to young offenders institutes and prisons. The programme’s longevity shows equally that the issue of knife crime still exists, however society – in particular young people, through Chickenshed – are keen to approach it head on.

Tackling difficult themes, understanding and positively encouraging young people, underpins the Chickenshed attitude. “Perhaps they’ve been told they’re too clever,” Susan concludes. “Or not clever enough, or not the right size, or they’re too tall or too short, but when you get on that stage, you can be who you want to be and that’s so exciting.”

It’s no real surprise that Chickenshed’s alumni have gone on to appear in the likes of Matilda and Kinky Boots, given its excellent education programmes; however it’s further testimony to its founders Jo and Mary, that many graduates are choosing to teach when they leave, keen to carry on the message that drama and performance is for everyone.

Despite its humble beginnings, the Chickenshed’s foundations remain as strong as ever.

A midnight feast

In August, Chickenshed will be presenting David Walliams’ bestselling children’s book, The Midnight Gang on stage for the first time. The Little Britain star has published a number of children’s stories, garnering comparisons to the great Road Dahl with his quirky and off-beat tales.

The Midnight Gang is set on a hospital children’s ward which includes Tom, taken in after being hit on the head by a cricket ball. Tom and four other children soon realise that the hospital has more to offer after the stroke of midnight.

The script, created by Lou Stein, has been approved by David and has parts written for some of the theatre’s inclusive performance students. Lou, who will also be directing the production is expecting something special. “It will be an opportunity to combine the genius of David Wallliams with the magic touch of a diverse and inclusive approach.” Chickenshed’s Artistic Director said.