I love my job.
I can often be found on the floor of a reception classroom, surrounded by 5 year olds, listening to their stories, which I scribe verbatim, word for word. Later we will act them out. This program was developed by MakeBelieve Arts. We call it Helicopter Stories and it is based on the work of our patron, Vivian Gussin Paley.
On other days I’m on the floor of a rehearsal room, playing with actors, acting out stories, and shaping them into a show as part of our First Theatre strand.
And sometimes I write stories myself.
I read somewhere that a person dies twice, once when their body is no longer able to function and once when their loved ones stop telling their stories.
Stories keep us alive.
There is evidence to show that our brains are hardwired from birth to make sense of the world through story, and watching a group of children at play, I completely believe it.
Story allows us to step into the shoes of another person, to see the world from their perspective. It gives us the ability to see outside of our own immediate surroundings and imagine a place where anything is possible.
When we listen to stories, parts of our brain light up, as if the thing that was happening to the character, was actually happening to us.
How cool is that?
“If you want children to be intelligent read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent read them more fairy tales.”
The quote above is from Albert Einstein. Now if he said it, it really must be true.
Through story we develop emotional intelligence, our ability to feel the pain and the joy of the people around us. If our world needs one thing at the moment, I’d say it was empathy. Thankfully it is found in bucket loads in a good story.
The children I work with are sometimes as young as 2 or 3 years old, and yet they know story. Already through play, they have experienced the power of becoming the queen who is cross, or the bravery of the superhero who rescues.
The actors I work with are older, but somehow they too have retained this knowledge, this ability to take risks, this delight in being invited to play.
I sometimes think that being in the theatre is a bit like being in the nursery. In both places we get the chance to dress up, to pretend to be people we are not, to endower a stick with the power of a sword, and a hat with the power of a crown.
And in both places, we have the joy of asking lots of questions.
Children delight in asking questions, and theatre allows us to do the same. A good devising process supports us in asking the best types of questions; the ones where we don’t know the answers. I always know I’ve asked a really good question, if I have a moment before the rehearsal starts when I feel scared, and wonder if the premise I created to set up the project, really can be answered.
Can we teach maths through story?
Gulp, supposing we can’t.
Is it possible to make biomedical science fun?
Eek, I don’t know if we can.
What about neurology for 7 year olds?
Now you really have gone too far…
But the moment we start to play, a small group of us, actors, designers, musicians, storytellers; the moment we start to ask ‘what if?’ or ‘supposing?’ then everything begins to falls into place.
You really can explore anything, if you put it into story form.
- What would happen if a 9 year old boy fell into his own brain on the night before a big test and met his Neo Cortex?
- What if white blood cells were secret agents and the monsters they were hunting were viruses?
- Supposing the king banned sleep?
These were some of the questions we asked for the Wellcome Trust funded World Inside Me.
And suddenly, in the play of the rehearsal room, we find the story.
Just as children in the nursery, find the game, create the character and make the play.
Imagine if that understanding of story, that sense of play that young children have instinctively, was nurtured throughout their lives, their education, and their journey into adulthood.
Think of the questions that generation would be capable of asking and the theatre that world would create.
“People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact it’s the other way around.” Terry Pratchett
MakeBelieve Arts is a theatre and education company founded in 2002. We recently relocated to Corsham, Wiltshire and we are keen to build relationships with the arts community across the county. If you would like to know more about our work, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Trisha Lee, artistic director, MakeBelieve Arts