Blog – Cultural Curriculum for Bristol: Creativity within a structure

As part of her work on the Cultural Curriculum for Bristol  (read Tanuja Amarasuriya’s introductory blog on the project here), we’ve asked Laura Street to share what she’s learning. Already an experienced Dance Artist, Laura recently trained as an Early Year’s Teacher, and she writes brilliantly about the process of creatively collaborating with teachers.

In her final blog, Laura talks about the challenges of balancing innovation with different agendas and predetermined project structures; and how strong collaboration is key if you want to change the world.

Structure is all around us. When creating art in whatever form, there is a holding structure never far away. The gallery owner who is clearing their walls expectant of the work that’s been promised to hang on them by the dealer, and to them by the artist… The producer who pops into rehearsals, checking in on the director and informing them of the budget, the bookings and ticket sales for previews… The rehearsal director who maintains company class for the dancers no matter how much the opening night looms in the foreground, and the choreographer’s feet itch to get working on the next section… We need structure in which to work even within a fluid creative practice. There needs to be a studio with the right amenities, the dates in everyone diaries, the funding in place and the arts council activity form filled out. Yet when creativity first spills into the world it’s an experimental, new, un-tamed and raw experience. Getting lost in the rivers of ideas, the off shoots and digressions that happen when someone else adds to the idea, the legs the idea grows when the creative team behind the work are operating at full speed. It’s exhilarating, wonderful and when it works, the world changes.

Myself and Emily [Emily Corry, the teacher at St Ursula’s who has been Laura’s key collaborator on the CCfB research] feel we are in the midst of creativity and the catalyst for our collaboration was spinning, holding us together as we discuss, play and plan. We have been asked by partners on the project, Bristol Plays Music and University of the West of England (UWE), to share with the first-year education students. We believe we’ve come across some concepts and approaches to planning that will excite these eager young teachers in training. But two days before the sessions, the structure comes into play. Sometimes the structure feels like a comforting hold that we need to have in order to play. The safety net below the trapeze to help to nail that new move; the familiar process of having your ticket checked by the usher and being shown to your seats, which makes you feel comfortable as an audience member, meaning you can open yourself up to a new experience that lies ahead. But sometimes it feels tight and restrictive. Sometimes you want to get out of your seat and touch the work. You can find yourself being overwhelmed by structure and losing your flow and the river takes an unexpected turn at the dam.

Now please don’t miss interpret me, I understand the importance of the ‘dam’. When working in partnerships everyone rightly has their own agenda, needs and wants from the work. As a freelancer I have become an expert in listening, understanding and answering agendas and commissions. I had been working closely with Theatre Bristol, and fulfilling their experimental and supportive approach in my delivery of the project and Emily’s methods were truly developing from our collaboration. But with the added mix of now two extra partners I felt our ideas weren’t fitting comfortably in the structure. We quickly rose to the needs of the UWE, creating a workshop that shared our approach and concepts coherently, so the students could understand where we were coming from and how we got there. We equipped them with the tools to plan creatively themselves and relished hearing their ideas and interpretations of our concepts. As we left the University we felt pleased with the applause we received from the students; but faced with the imposed structure that the lesson plans now needed to fit into, we started to feel the momentum slip into confusion. We needed to work out how our collaborative lesson plans, concepts and ideas fitted into a structure which was externally imposed, to answer agendas and wants of the partners. It was getting to that foggy bit of the creative process: the head scratchy 4th week of rehearsals for the new devised piece of theatre, where the director’s hair and eyes seem to get bigger each day until it’s time for the tech run. The clunky awkward part of the making process where things need to be fitted into things and you praise the production manager for being able to make it all fit somehow.  Right then, we think, where do we go from here….?

We struggle to fit our approaches and ideas into the final structure that seems to appear from nowhere. Communication breaks down and we feel lost within the project. We are extremely proud of the approaches and concepts we have conceived, which work to the needs of the schools planning system; but this seems to be at odds with the structure set out by the lead partners on the project. So mine and Emily’s concepts start to fall through the gaps that are so common in collaborative projects. In an age where we communicate via so many different means, the actual quality of communication seems to be slipping. Once the ideas have been born, what happens to them next is key. If you’ve created an amazing artistic experience, but your flyer sucks no one is going to come and see it. Our ideas seem to be fading with the confusing communication and I feel Emily’s patience wain. In an age where we are being asked more and more often to pool the limited resources that are left, the skill of collaboration seems to be extremely key. We seem to be falling victim to the ‘too many cooks’ approach, which is so easy to happen in today’s resource squeezed society.

So me and Emily, with the guidance of the ever supportive Theatre Bristol hunker down and go back to the ideas, the approach, the ethos that inspires and motivates us. We drink in the words of Ken Robinson – often a guiding light for educators everywhere – and think about what we’ve really discovered from each other. And it’s this: that what we are exploring within this project is about an attitude. It’s something that is deep rooted into an education system that needs an overhaul. We feel connected and committed to the shared approach we have cultivated over the last year of working together and feel passionate about sharing it with others. To try to shift the attitude of fear that so often bubbles up from teachers that ‘dance’ or ‘creativity’ isn’t for them. Teachers often see themselves as not creative, not confident within their own bodies, so drag their heels to teach in this way. And with the ever-heavy pressure from the government and management system coming down from above, there is the perfect excuse to say, I’m too busy. But children are inherently creative, they live in their bodies and use them to explore the world and learn every day. This is easily observed in any early years setting. The language of the physical is the first language of the child – of us all. We learn to move before we learn to talk, but we move further and further away from it as we age. We devise a plan to share our learning with the staff of the school and fight tooth and nail for a half hour slot in a whole staff meeting – not a simple task in any way. We prepare our power point and prepare ourselves to take our learning forward. To change attitudes bit by bit. Here we go, wish us luck…

Read all of Laura’s insightful blogs on her experiences on the Cultural Curriculum for Bristol and find out more about the project here.