Once upon a time
By Mark Kebble on December 17th 2010
In 1974, musician and composer, Jo Collins, met Mary Ward, a teacher and director. With a shared belief in harnessing the creativity in everyone and anyone, they started a theatre company. In a chicken shed.
So began a remarkable story, one that has seen the Chickenshed name become known across the world. Time hasn’t diminished the Chickenshed experience, as testified by their current show, the fabulous Badjelly’s Bad Christmas. A tribute to comedy genius – and Chickenshed supporter – Spike Milligan, the production is based around a book he write for his daughter, Jane, when she was six-years-old. Over to Mary to tell us more…
How important was Spike Milligan to Chickenshed?
“We were lucky enough to meet Spike here when he came to Chickenshed to see a Christmas show, not long before he died. His daughter Jane has been a good friend of the Company for many years. Jane is a musician, actor and sound engineer and we have been fortunate to work with her on several occasions. This year Jane has acted as a guide through the landscape of Spike’s wonderful poems. Some of which are humorous and some are intensely moving, particularly those which are written for his own children. We have used two particularly poignant ones that he wrote for Jane herself. Spike had a great respect for children. He believed that they have more wisdom then adults. Here at Chickenshed we too respect our children and young people and believe that we adults have a lot to learn from their uncomplicated view of the way things should be. We also believe that giving children a place where they feel comfortable and where they have no fear of failure is a vital part of creating a decent society. Unfortunately, it is clear that as a society this doesn’t always happen with disastrous results.”
The cast of Badjelly’s Bad Christmas features over 650 members – where did you start with such a large number?
“When we first moved into our theatre after having been in church and school halls we felt it was right to involve everybody in the first Christmas show. We were still painting the walls the day before we opened and it was a very emotional experience for everyone who had worked so hard. Because of the large numbers that year we divided the cast into three groups and on the last night everyone came on stage and performed a couple of songs together. We don’t do that now, but it is still the one time in the year when the children’s theatre, youth theatre and the Company all work together. It is a bonding experience for all the different age groups.”
Are the Chickenshed Christmas shows always a joy to put on?
“This is the 17th Christmas show and Chickenshed has gone through testing times in those 17 years. However, the joy on the performers’ faces as they hear the applause of the audience never fails to move and inspire. For the time that our cast and the audience are together in one shared uplifting experience, there is a mutual understanding and empathy which carries on long after the lights have dimmed.”
It has been over 36 years since you and Jo founded Chickenshed. How do you look back on the early days?
“Jo and I look back with nostalgia, pride and huge gratitude to all those who believed in our dream of having a place where everyone is welcome and no-one feels excluded. It has been tough and Jo and I have had to be strong and stick to our principles. We deeply believe that every person has a contribution to make and it is the sum of those contributions that creates each piece of theatre.”
Did you have many ambitions back then?
“Jo and I always wanted to have our own theatre and we wanted to make the world a better place. We have achieved the first and we are doing our absolute best to achieve the second.”
What are the crucial points in Chickenshed’s history that really pushed things on?
“There are so many ‘crucial points in our history. Meeting Jo in 1974 and finding that we had a common love of theatre and a belief in fostering the creativity in everyone was the first step. Being given the chicken shed was a crucial part and having an initial membership of 30 young people. Performing three productions in the first two years, which culminated in our first sell-out production of Lewis Carroll’s wonderful book. We called our version Alice and it was first performed at the Intimate Theatre in Palmers Green.
By 1976 we found that younger brothers and sisters of the first members wanted to join – so we started our Children’s Theatre group. In 1982 we were asked to appear in a regular TV slot on a series called Saturday Action. Having an increased membership in 1986 of 150 people showed we were growing at a huge rate. An evening performance on March 13, 1988, hosted by Dame Judi Dench and Michael Williams led to Lord and Lady Rayne becoming supporters and Lady Rayne agreed to become our President. It was thanks to her that we were lucky enough to meet HRH Diana, Princess of Wales and she subsequently became our Patron. It was at that point that we met the Enfield Chief Executive, Brian McAndrew, and the following day he sent a member to every department of Enfield Council instructing them to find land suitable for Chickenshed to build their future. Lord and Lady Rayne said that they would help us to raise the money for the building and these extraordinary people delivered the dream – a place of our own.
Every year has been a turning point in our history, but especially 1990 when we conceived an outreach project that would involve children from 22 London Boroughs performing alongside Chickenshed. A thousand children took part in Anansi at the Royal Albert Hall. This started a commitment to outreach which culminated in our Shedlink programme. We now have 21 of those linked Sheds – 19 in the UK and two in Russia. Chickenshed performed Anansi again at Sadler’s Wells in front of HRH Diana, Princess of Wales later in the year. This was our first Royal Gala. We performed The Attraction at The Shaw Theatre where Janet Suzman and Trevor Nunn first saw us. It was then that Trevor suggested we should take this show on a UK Tour. We also performed the first of now 20 cabaret performances at the Hard Rock Cafe in London.
By 1991 The Attraction had become our flagship performance and it ran for a week at the prestigious Place Theatre in London, which resulted in an appearance on The Wogan Show on TV and a four page centre spread article in The Mail on Sunday and countrywide attention.
In 1992 our dream of a purpose built theatre was on the verge of being realised. Land to the north of Saracens in Southgate was given to Chickenshed and all that remained was the problem of money – Lady Rayne worked tirelessly to help us achieve the target. We now had 450 members and 300 on our waiting list. In December 1994 our wonderful purpose built theatre opened just in time for our Christmas show, The Night Before Christmas.
The following year we released a record, sang at Wembley with Meatloaf, went on our first ever national tour and had the huge honour of performing in front of the HRH The Queen, The Royal Family and 54 Heads of State for VE Day. The whole performance was broadcast live to a worldwide television audience of over 50 million people.
To list more crucial points, I received the MBE for Services to the Arts, Jo received an MBE for Services to Music, I was the subject of This is Your Life which was a way of honouring the work of the Company, we appeared alongside the Spice Girls at Wembley Stadium, we performed at The Queen Mother’s 100th Birthday celebrations, The Queen’s Golden Jubilee Pageant in The Mall and at Buckingham Palace and we were asked to work in Ethiopia with young people who had been ravaged by illness and disability caused by war and the legacy of polio – the list goes on and on, but are all crucial parts of our history.
Recently we have been at the forefront of tackling social issues through performance. We took “as the mother of a brown boy…” to The Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2007 and Crime of the Century in 2009 and subsequently toured the UK with both shows.
Now we have over 1,000 people who pass through our doors each week. We have 21 satellite sheds including two in Russia. We run Education Courses including a BTEC National Diploma which has achieved a Grade One Ofsted Assessment since 2003, a Foundation Degree Course and an MA Postgraduate Certificate – 66% of our students wouldn’t be permitted to start a course at other schools, colleges or universities
It has been said about us that we create outstanding, breathtaking, inspirational theatre as Trevor Nunn says: 'Chickenshed - a glimpse of a more perfect world!'
These are compliments, but also we have a responsibility to continue to deserve them – we must be diligent.”
How do you feel when you consider how far Chickenshed has come?
“Proud, grateful and a little tired! The future is bright. Most of our senior staff have come through the Company and Chickenshed is as much theirs as Jo’s and mine. There are generations who are experiencing the particular magic that is present in this work and whose lives are influenced by what they learn here.”
You are open to all – how exciting is it to work with youngsters who wouldn’t normally have the chance to express themselves through theatre?
“The best feeling is watching people begin to believe in themselves. There is no failure at Chickenshed because as long as you do your best you are a success. That lack of failure is liberating and we watch people’s self worth grow and it is almost as though they open like a flower and blossom before our eyes.
Looking ahead Mary, what can you tell me about Chickenshed Kensington and Chelsea?
“This is a very exciting time for Chickenshed. Chickenshed K&C will be starting in September 2011 engaging children, young people and adults in theatre workshops and giving local young people the opportunity to train in the inclusive theatre process which Chickenshed has developed over the past 36 years. There will be a children’s theatre for ages five to seven years and seven to 11 years and a Youth Theatre for 11-16 years and 16 years upwards. In the summer as a forerunner, we will be taking into the Borough our very popular Tales from the Shed performances for 0 to seven-year-olds and our production of Crime from the Century. The purpose of this will be to engage local people in our vision.”
And what else is in store for us in 2011?
“As always we have a very busy and exciting year ahead of us. Our present Christmas show runs until Saturday January 15, 2011. We immediately go into rehearsals for our next main house production, The King’s Web, set in a country on the brink of destruction. The King’s Web explores the fight for freedom and the redemptive power of compassion and unity. We also have our regular Tales from the Shed performances on Friday and Saturday mornings. Last year we introduced very successful Saturday Morning Sessions that will be starting again at the end of January 2011 so that even more children and young people can experience the Chickenshed magic. Our much acclaimed production Crime of the Century, which premiered at The Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2009 and then completed an extremely successful UK tour this year, will be touring schools, education and community organisations in 2011. We believe that Crime of the Century is a highly powerful tool for social change. It meets head-on the potential causes and effects of gang related knife crime that is affecting our young people. In April 2011 we will be performing two nights of cabaret shows at The Hard Rock Cafe in London. Of course our education courses continue throughout the year, culminating in end of term productions in June. We have a new production – One Fine Day - which we will be previewing at the theatre and taking to The Edinburgh Festival in August. In November we will be performing our 22nd Annual Fundraising Gala and the year will end with our next Christmas production. A busy but exciting year ahead. And so the story continues…”
Badjelly’s Bad Christmas runs until January 15, 2011. For tickets, please call 020 8292 9222 or visit www.chickenshed.org.uk
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