At the end of October I spent four days in Denmark working on an extraordinary project which gave 45 young musicians the opportunity to devise over a weekend. The project was part of the Stepstones (Trædesten) project which is creating work with young people leading up to 2017 when Århus is the European Capital of Culture.
The project is a collaboration between a number of organisations including Århus Music School, the Aarhus 2017 and Den Jyske Opera. My job was to create a framework for the participants to devise within beginning on Friday evening, through Saturday, and ending in a sharing on Sunday afternoon.
The one given was the venue which was called VitaPark and was in a small town called Odder. The venue was an old hospital which was used as a community arts venue. It was extremely atmospheric, and we had nine different rooms that the young musicians could devise in across the weekend. Each room had a theme and gifts that had come from the last Stepstones project.
Friday night began with introductions, inspiration, exercises and exploration. I introduced the group to the ‘yes and’ rule, and we did some storytelling together. The project leader, Gunnild, had assembled a facilitation team who would support the process across the weekend, and the team took over 4 rooms on Friday evening and offered inspiration pieces for the students to see. In this way they began to explore possibilities. The group then visited each room on offer and had to vote for their top three choices.
By Saturday morning we had sorted the participants into 9 groups, with a range of musicians in each room – we had classical singers, e-musicians, folk violinists, drummers, guitarists, and pianists, all between 16 and 18. Christian was their tutor, and his input was crucial to get the balance right.
And so the devising began. Warm-up to begin, of course, with a focus on getting them working together in their groups. Then structured chunks of devising time with seed questions for each chunk. By lunchtime it was clear that some groups were moving faster than others, and the facilitation team met to decide who needed light touch encouragement, who needed to be left alone and who was completely lost. We encouraged experimentation, and tried to keep thoughts of audience at the back of their minds for the moment.
The final part of the afternoon was spent with groups visiting each other’s work and feeding back on what they saw. I prepared a set of reflection questions for this session, to help structure thinking around what they were experiencing. Feedback from the group told us that this session was particularly useful.
Sunday morning was sleepy and bleary eyed, mainly due to the extended jam session that had happened the night before. A gentle warm-up tried to inject some energy into the group, and they were particularly amused by rubber chicken – I couldn’t tell them why this was the word we yelled at the end! Answers on a postcard.
We moved into polishing their work and thinking about how the audience would enter and leave the space. I visited each group and asked them questions. It was great to see some groups suddenly realising that there would be an audience in the space too and they would have to find a way to move them where they wanted them.
Finally our audience arrived, and they were led through the spaces in small groups by a facilitator. Gunnild explained the context of the project to each group before they undertook their journey. The group I was with was blown away by what had been created in such a short space of time, and also by the talent of the young people.
I really feel so lucky to have been able to undertake this project. It was such a treat to work with the young musicians and see them find their way from Friday night scepticism through Saturday afternoon collaborative arts practice to Sunday afternoon site-specific performance artists.
For me, it was a testing ground for a number of techniques and ideas, and I certainly came away with a clearer view of the possibilities and limitations of structure in this kind of process. I hope to be able to explore extended devising again, and would be love to see what happens when there is a cross arts group involved.