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How it began

We met at college in Leeds in the mid seventies. We were both training to teach:-

Jennny was studying Drama and Special Education.

Bill was studying Human Movement Studies and English.

The cross over point was the Dance Studio. Jenny featured in several of Bill’s Dance pieces and he returned the favour by helping her produce a one woman clowning show.

This is not a complete, thorough or detailed account. There will not be many dates, we don’t really do dates, but the chronology is accurate.

Jenny was undertaking a research project examining the creation of theatre for children with Special Educational Needs.

The first decision was to make the work non verbal. A reliance on understanding spoken language would have excluded many of the children the work was aimed at.

We chose to use clowning and humour based work because of the instant feedback: you do something funny - the audience laughs.

It means they were attending to what you did,

it means they understood it,

it means they appreciated and enjoyed it.

Instant feedback.

We used kazoos as a form of non-literal language. Through context and intonation the children were able to understand what we were “saying”.

After the shows we would visit each class, still in character, and we had some remarkable encounters and “conversations” with the children.

The sets were made from suitcases which we carried around on public transport. This might sound restricting but we were able to do 2 tours of London by picking schools near to tube stations.

We developed a street version of the shows and took the work to Germany.

Things changed when we got our first motorbike and sidecar.

Why a motorbike and sidecar?

Cheaper than a van or car.

You could drive it on a provisional license.

As a learner you can carry a passenger if you have a suitable sidecar.

We didn’t have one, so we built one.

The suitcases went into the “boot” at the back.

     We were now super mobile.

This made national touring possible and meant we could also go to rural schools and festivals.

The next development was to build a bigger sidecar which meant sets for school shows could be larger and the festival show could actually be built into the sidecar.

“Sideshow” let us do things we did not, or could not do in schools: talking, fire juggling, fire eating and magic. During the school holidays we performed at festivals around the country.

Performing “Sideshow” at  festivals was generally a hoot. We often got very nervous before shows as festival and street work was less predictable than work in the school environment.

We enjoyed being able to meet and talk to other performers and the fact that it paid well.

For several years “Sideshow” effectively subsidised our school based work.

The larger sidecar meant we could build larger sets and create larger visual effects in our school shows.

The range of schools we visited increased as teachers in Special Schools recommended us to the mainstream Primary Schools that their own children attended.

We continued to use white face and humour based work but  we began to develop more visually sophisticated narrative techniques.

For example, the show illustrated here began in monochrome and as the plot unfolded colour was gradually introduced.

We had by this time become quite adept at gaining and retaining the attention of our audiences.

The biggest problem we faced in wanting to develop was the nature of the venues - school halls. Very few had blackout facilities so we could not employ lighting. Our carefully considered sets would often be in front of visually confusing and distracting backgrounds such as wall bars, windows or walls covered in paintings, charts and posters.

Our solution was the tent.

It packed away neatly

into the sidecar.

It could accommodate

1 class at a time.

Made from natural materials - calico, dowel

and canvas.

When we closed the door the children were in our world.

There were no distractions.

The first piece we created was a 20 minute storytelling exercise using a few props and a wide shadow puppet screen.

The piece was well received but the star was the tent. It was a small, intimate and secure space.

We fell in love with it and were very excited about the new possibilities it offered.

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