Between January 12th – Jan.17th, I had the pleasure of joining in Ashford, Kent (UK) 11 other artists from around the globe in a one in a lifetime experience provided by a partnership between Rose Bruford College and Punchdrunk. Since then, I’ve been struggling with finding the time to process, organise and share this experience. Ow that I have this blog started and moving on, I know the time to digest this experience is coming, but while it doesn’t, I’d like to share with you a post written by another artist that participated in this process as well – after all, I doubt I will be able to express myself as beautifully as Nicky did in her post! Enjoy!
The Joy of Creating, a guest post by the amazing Nicky Bellenger*
It’s taken me over a week but I’ve finally got round to writing about my inspirational week with Punchdrunk Enrichment in Hamstreet Primary Academy. If you’re interested then settle down, grab a cuppa, maybe a biscuit or two; it’s likely this will be a very long one…
On the week of 12th January I joined 11 other artists from the UK, America, Canada, Mumbai, Singapore and Norway to take part in Rose Bruford College’s project DREAM: the Joy of Creating. With support from Artswork’s Partnership Investment Programme, Rose Bruford have teamed up with Ashford Borough Council, Kent County Council and internationally renowned theatre companies Oily Cart and Punchdrunk to bring together theatre practitioners who create work with/for children and young people.
More info on the DREAM project here, should you wish to know more:https://www.bruford.ac.uk/news-events/news/dream-partnership-announced-for-rose-bruford-college/
My home for the week was in a beautiful (if challenging for the lengthier of us humans) cottage in Tenterden, with 3 other participants. Cottage life was bliss, I soon got the hang of how not to bash my head on every door frame, and my temporary cottage mates were a delight; good start!
The whole week was spent in Hamstreet Primary Academy; a really welcoming village school in Kent with around 300 children aged 4-11. We were given an attic room above some of the reception classes which became our base for the week, and spent Monday morning getting to know a bit about each other’s work, as well as starting to learn about Punchdrunk Enrichment’s approach to creating projects in schools. A whole school assembly was thrown to allow us all to say a quick hello to the children, who were unsurprisingly intrigued by the presence of 15 or so new adults in their school (many of which had to get on a plane to be there), and the all-important question of “are you sleeping in our school?” was soon answered. We were given permission to eat school dinners with the children in the school hall each day, and after spending the morning in our attic room we were excited to start talking to the pupils on Monday lunch time.
The children had been informed that we were there to create a performance for them to enjoy on Friday, but little other information was given. Equally, Punchdrunk chose not to reveal anything specific to the 12 of us for the first two days, so when the children continued to ask for more details we were unable to say anything other than “we don’t know what we’re creating either yet, but we’re just as excited as you!”.
It’s not often I get to spend time in a school without being the one who is leading workshops or in charge of a project so I took great pleasure in sitting alongside the children and engaging in genuine conversations, happily sharing their curiosity of where the week was heading. Lunch time conversations were a mixture of favourite subjects, most exciting things to ever happen in school, playground politics and birthday party planning…
The Punchdrunk team, led by Pete, very generously gifted us the first two days as time for exploring, learning, and finding our feet in the school. We spent time in the hall with Katie (performer), and Livi (designer) exploring methods of making a successful Punchdrunk Enrichment show. We generated ideas that we knew we wouldn’t be using in the school, but there was a real value in these two days of absorbing & dreaming.
By Wednesday the excitement of creating something for the children starting shifting into a real joy of learning and discovering alongside the children. We all came with expectations and assumptions of what would be in store for the week, but the events that began to unfold as the week progressed were as surprising to us as visiting artists as they were to the children!
Here’s what happened mid-week…
The Punchdrunk team had been attending staff meetings, interviewing the children and generally working hard behind the scenes at the beginning of the week. On Wednesday they announced to the group that the school wanted us to create something about maths.
12 artists and an internationally renowned theatre company do not make for good mathematicians. Punchdrunk usually get asked to create projects in schools that support creative writing or English; they’d never been asked to create a project that helps the children with their maths and so this was fairly new territory for them as well. We discussed our own experiences with the subject, both in school and in our everyday lives. There was an air of fear amongst the group! I did a drama degree, my brother did a maths degree, and therefore I have never seen myself as being ‘good’ at maths: that was my brother’s thing, not mine.
But by the end of Wednesday the challenge was embraced, as we realised it was our job to make maths enjoyable, to help embed an understanding of the importance of the subject outside of school, and to encourage an enthusiasm for the subject, and this was an exciting challenge to take on. We played around with some of the maths exercises from the curriculum (which we struggled with!) and discussed how to make maths creative. We watched interviews that Pete & Livi had conducted with the children, and were given a year group each to observe in order to gain an understanding of things that each age group finds challenging, easy, enjoyable etc. I messaged my brother Weds evening in excitement, knowing he would find it amusing that I was part of a project that would help children engage more positively with maths, and I suddenly felt determined to find a love for the subject along with the children.
Thursday morning, back in our attic room, Punchdrunk announced that they had discovered a famous mathematician called John Wallis, who was born in Ashford in 1616 and therefore a local lad. We immediately began researching. John Wallis was a lover of maths, opera, astrology, music, inventor of the infinity symbol, chief cryptographer for parliament and a member of the Invisible College. He was our man: the inspiration for our ‘performance’. And so Thursday was full of researching, planning and piecing ideas together. Until something pretty exciting stopped us in our tracks Thursday evening…
We were working late in the school, trying desperately to get something ready for the children on Friday. We’d become absorbed in our research, secretly locking ourselves in 3 of the school’s less used spaces, turning them into our laboratories of curiosities and our centres for mathematical study. We had become so distracted with the research that we had run out of time to rehearse our play for the whole school the next day. Some of the company decided it was best to sleep over in the school that night, to try and get something ready. 3 of us agreed to go and get some supplies, but as we approached my car we saw something odd in the school car park:
A puzzle box. We believed it had been on the school site for quite some time. Was it left here by John Wallis or the Invisible College? There were chains, a padlock and numbers all around the edge. We stayed in the school all night trying to figure out how to get into it and why it was here. This of course meant that we hadn’t made or rehearsed our performance for the children…
Friday morning an emergency assembly was called, during which we all stood in front of the whole school and announced that we didn’t have a show for them. The head teacher was not impressed at all, and the children were of course disappointed. We felt incredibly bad, so Punchdrunk decided to reveal what we had found in the school car park the evening before. As Liam and Richard carried the heavy puzzle box into the hall, the children were immediately curious. Pete and Katie explained how we found it, and a buzz began to build. A secret puzzle box? Found here in their school? Possibly left by a famous mathematician? Jeremy from Rose Bruford was on the phone to the British Museum, and of course the local authorities had been informed. The box was big news and much to our delight the children seemed as excited as us.
An envelope was attached to the box, which was opened in front of the children, revealing a map of stars from the Horologium constellation. We knew John Wallis was into astrology but this didn’t make sense to us. We returned to our secret study rooms to continue trying to figure out how to get into the box.
At lunchtime we only spent 20mins of the hour break with the children, as we needed to continue working on getting the box opened and were obviously very tired from our school sleepover the night before. As we walked across the playground we were mobbed by children of all ages who had spent time in their classrooms researching John Wallis and the Invisible College to try to figure out the 3 digit code to open the padlock. Children had numbers written on their hands, theories were scribbled onto paper and thrust into our hands and the reception children wanted us to try some of their plastic keys! In the hall, more rumours and theories were flying around the tables. Someone’s mum heard an alarm the night before, a boy had discovered he was related to John Wallis and one of the older girls had cracked the code and needed to find us. We were stunned at the voluntary effort of all of the children.
After lunch the adventure really began. In our 3 secret studies we had discovered that by laying the map of the stars over a map of the Kent downs the stars lined up perfectly with place names that also happened to be the names of their classrooms. Well waddya know?! We were thrilled to discover that the puzzle box wasn’t for us to open, but it must be for the children from those classrooms.
WE NEEDED THE CHILDREN’S HELP.
So we split into 3 groups. My team had been working in the music room, and we decided to recruit years 3 & 4 to help us. Each group needed to find one number to input into the padlock. We decided to take the children out of their classrooms in groups of 10 at a time, and sneak them into one of our secret spaces to share our discoveries so far. “Sorry to disturb you sir but can I borrow 10 of your children to help me ‘carry some stuff’?” Another small lie to a teacher. Sorry Hamstreet!
As one of my groups of 10 entered the space, which was now far from the familiar surroundings of their music room, a boy exclaimed “this is the best day of my life!” – and I couldn’t have agreed with him more. All of the walls were covered in brown paper, pictures and maths sums, weird instruments had appeared as part of our research, windows had been blacked out and magical sources of light glowed around the space. We quickly shut the door & I showed them our discovery that we made with the map of the stars, explaining we couldn’t continue trying to figure out the numbers for the padlock without them. “This puzzle box is for you”; they were delighted to help.
After using a code to transform the numbers around the edge of the box into a riddle, the children very quickly determined that we needed to go and look in a specific place in the playground. And so I followed their lead over the next 15mins, figuring out the riddle to reveal a series of maths puzzles in locations around their school. The whole school was suddenly animated, with children rushing around with numbers and clues. My groups ended in a secret location in the school hall where they had to place a zero in front of a mirror that had been delivered by the Invisible College to reveal the number 8.
“Take that number back to your class. I’ll go and report back to the others and will let you know what happens.”
After every child had gone on their journey around the school with one of the artists, cracking codes and answering maths puzzles with excitement, impressive intelligence & team work, we were ready to call another emergency assembly.
It was there, at the end of the school day, that we stood with the 3 numbers retrieved by the children. The atmosphere was electric as Katie and Livi nervously put the numbers into the padlock, followed by an uproar as the lock opened and they began removing the chains. They did it. The children of Hamstreet Primary Academy had successfully figured out how to open one of the Invisible College’s puzzle boxes.
And inside the box? A monster? A million pounds? Treasure?
No, something much more special than we’d all imagined. A letter from the Invisible College. As Katie read it out loud it became clear that the children had done something quite extraordinary; only people with extraordinary minds would be able to get into that box. Therefore every child had earned their place as an official member of the Invisible College, and will each receive a membership card from the Invisible College in the post.
And there was another envelope.
A certificate congratulating the school and announcing that a star in the Horologium Constellation had officially been named ‘Hamstreet Primary Academy’, in recognition of the children’s achievements in mathematics.
Children high fived each other, teachers exchanged proud smiles, and I heard a child from one of the reception classes tell her friend that this must mean that they are famous.
And the 12 artists, many of which arrived by aeroplane, who had come to make a play for the school with Punchdrunk were leaving with something much more magical than they could have imagined…
…the joy of creating, the joy of learning & discovering, the joy of spending a week in Hamstreet Primary Academy.
“This was the best week of my life.”
There are some images from the week on the school’s website:
Many thanks to the Punchdrunk Enrichment team, all staff & children at Hamstreet Primary Academy and to Jeremy from Rose Bruford College who was the perfect host for the week.
*this post was originally published in Jan. 27th, 2015 in Nicky’s blog