Theatre

Meet the young, care-experienced theatre-makers breaking stereotypes

There are more than 92,000 children in care in the UK. They still face stigma and a lack of understanding... but one play aims to change that.

Belongings - a play that aims to challenge stigma faced by young people in care. Care Day

In Belongings - a play that aims to challenge stigma faced by young people in care - Cleo (Carla Garratt) looks for a way home. Photo: Thomas Young

There are more than 92,000 children in care in the UK, according to the latest figures. They cannot be with their birth families, either because it is unsafe for them to be there, or because their parents are unable to look after them. Marked annually, Care Day – which this year falls on February 17 – is a chance to celebrate those young people, and to encourage empathy.

“I’d like people to know it can happen to anyone and you’re not alone when it happens,” says 13-year-old Henry, who’s currently being looked after by a foster carer in Kent. “It’s like, it’s not just you who’s going through it. It can be anyone, all over the country.”

Henry and his 16-year-old brother Billy have been in care for five years. For the last three years, they’ve been drawing on their personal experiences to become co-creators in an innovative new play that aims to help young people aged six to 11 (as well as those of us who are a bit older) understand the emotional impact of growing up away from your birth family. Produced by theatre company Tangled Feet and Rowan Tree Dramatherapy, Belongings opens in London on February 25 before touring theatres and schools.

“There’s some parts that are funny, there’s some parts that are quite sad, there’s anger,” Billy says of the play. “Which I guess are emotions that we’ve all gone through in our life.”

As siblings in care – and who’ve been fortunate to at least be living together – it was important for Billy and Henry to emphasise the important role that support from brothers and sisters can play when young people are dealing with the turbulence of going through the care system. A recent report by the Children’s Commissioner Dame Rachel De Souza showed not everyone is so fortunate. One in three children are separated from their siblings when they come into care.

“We help each other with all our homework. And if either of us are unhappy or need support, we talk to each other about whatever we need,” says Billy. A bit of the classic sibling teasing aside, he’s a good big brother, Henry confirms.

Centred on three unrelated children who find themselves in the same foster care placement, Belongings shows how they face their fears and work out their place in the world. Billy and Henry were two of six young people who fed their experiences of care into the play. It was then the job of writer Shireen Mula to bring their words together to build a story, and of director Nathan Curry to bring the performance to the stage with professional actors.

The brothers came to the production through dramatherapy, which Billy says has been important to him in processing being apart from his birth family. “I find it easier to open up about your feelings and stuff,” he explains. “Normal therapy, you’re like sitting in a room with somebody else and it just feels awkward. But with dramatherapy – there’s different activities you can do to talk about your feelings, and you can express yourself through the drama and movement.”

Both Billy and Henry now say they’d like to keep drama as part of their life. Keen on the performance side, Henry would like to be the next David Walliams, while Billy says he’d be interested in “anything in that world” though his main ambition is still to join the RAF.

Whether they end up working in the industry or not, it was important to all the young people that they shared their stories, Mula and Curry agree.

Workshops with children in care for new play Belongings. Photo: Nathan Curry

“This is a common story. There are looked-after children in this world, in this society, for lots of different reasons,” says Curry. “What we want to do is not just shy away from it, we put that story up on a stage and perform it as an important story of our world.”

“We need to speak about this thing,” agrees Mula. “There isn’t any shame around it, you shouldn’t be fearful of it.” She hopes the play will help “people who aren’t looked-after kids to be able to connect with them, and not to be afraid of that difference.”

There’s a wide goal, then, about educating the public about an experience that may have previously seemed alien to them and starting a conversation about different sorts of families. But some of the most powerful reactions the team has had to early work-in-progress previews have been from children who are themselves living through some form of the story on stage. They’ve talked about feeling “seen” for the first time.

“The majority of the audience who’ll watch this show, will be living with their birth family. And so they have to go on a journey that’s about empathy and about understanding,” says Curry. “But if there’s one child in that audience that goes: this is my story and someone’s put on the stage and I have a valid part in this world. I think we’d all be happy with that.”

That’s hopefully yet to come, but in the meantime, they know the play has already had a huge impact on at least six young people – Billy, Henry and their fellow co-creators.

“They were very, very cautious at the beginning,” Mula remembers. “And not all of them actually knew each other. Now we’ve met with them quite a few times, they’ve all met one another. We’ve all played together. And so now we’ve got a bond, they feel much more confidence with us, they feel much more able to give their opinions in different ways. I’ve seen them blossom in their confidence.”

Belongings premieres on February 25 at Polka Theatre in Wimbledon and then tours until late March. For more information, see tangledfeet.com

Find out more about Care Day here.

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