“BRB” says Jacque Odd, a die (die being the singular of dice, of course), as she rolls out of the sweet aisle in Aldi.
She’s recently made friends with Bob Roberts, a piece of iron, and the pair are searching for a pint of milk (not soy, oat or rice, “Just Milk”).
Pausing for a moment she adds, sassily: “Do you understand BRB or is that too Gen-Z for you?”
You’d be forgiven for thinking this is a piece of avant-garde theatre, or something absurdist and experimental put on by a foreign (probably Scandinavian) theatre company. But this, in fact, is a short play called “The Game”, in which every character, line of speech and hand-drawn prop, was dreamt up by a nine-year-old. And The Big Issue was lucky enough to bag a ticket (all free) to a night of 10 plays – all created by children – each as surreal as the last, this Christmas.
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The plays are put together by Scene & Heard, a unique theatre mentoring charity that partners primary school children with volunteer professional actors and theatre professionals to create their own short plays. These are then performed to London’s discerning theatre-going public, while the little playwright watches from their throne.
There’s only one rule at Scene & Heard; you can’t create human characters. “This allows the children to really liberate their imaginations, free up their creativity and explore themes that otherwise might feel more difficult to explore,” explains Roz Paul MBE, artistic director and CEO. In the charity’s 24 years of creating plays about objects, animals, aspects of nature and even chemical elements, there has never been a character too zany, too bizarre to be brought to life. “We do not edit or change the children’s words,” she explains, “the actors must perform them exactly as the children have decided.”
Scene & Heard works with children growing up in Somers Town, where it might sometimes feel like there are limits to what a child can dream or aspire to. An inner-city district in North London, Somers Town is flanked by three major train stations – with their upmarket eateries and boutiques – and the elegant Georgian townhouses of Bloomsbury. This is a densely populated pocket of largely social housing, where classroom sizes top 30 children, and the affluence of neighbouring areas stands in stark contrast.
And it’s no coincidence that Scene & Heard, the only charity of its kind, was started here. When it was established in 1999, the charity’s founders, Sophie Boyack and Kate Coleman, had a vision for the charity to embed itself in a tight-knit community, where it could help create positive change for the long run.
Since then, Scene & Heard has worked with more than 400 children (member playwrights, as they like to call them), some of whom are now in their 30s. “Once a member playwright, always a member playwright” is the charity’s motto, meaning children are invited back year upon year to build on their skills, and feel part of a creative community. “It’s about having a sustained and long-term impact. You can’t achieve a profound impact, raise aspiration or boost self esteem with a one-off,” explains Paul.
The lasting impact the experience has on the children who take part is clear – 86% of playwrights who are old enough have gone on to achieve higher education (Level 4 qualification or above), whereas 37% of the residents of Somers Town held a higher education degree in the 2021 census.
“I first came to a Scene & Heard production to see a friend play a washing machine that fell in love with a blender, and then in the second half there was a ghost hamster who lost their magnifying glass,” West, best known for his role in Channel 5’s All Creatures Great and Small, told The Big Issue in the interval.
“The thing about theatre is it’s live, it’s immediate, and it’s theirs. It’s happening right in front of them and they created it. Without them, it wouldn’t exist.
“It’s the most fun I’ve had in any theatre.”
As each play draws to an end, its youthful playwright takes to the stage for their playwright’s bow. Rapturous applause erupts. This public affirmation sends a clear message: “You have created something worthy of professional production that we have all enjoyed. Well done.”
For Anastasia Browne, now in her 20s and a volunteer prop-maker for today’s productions, taking her playwright’s bow as a child is a moment she’ll never forget.
“You walk onto the stage, and just feel like… nothing in the world can touch you,” she says. “It’s just all you, and they’re all clapping for you and you did it all and you’re just brilliant.”
This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!