High challenge and high support for Project Development

28 July 2014

Tony McBride, Director of Projects at Cardboard Citizens, explains how participating in AND’s Action Learning set both challenged and supported his approach to developing a project.

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Project background

In February of this year Cardboard Citizens were delighted to receive an Extension Award from the Wellcome Trust to further develop a theatre project exploring neuroscience and The Heritage of Violence (further information at end of article).


It’s an ambitious project and one made more so by its tight schedule (we had confirmation of funding in February and were planning to tour in September!). Significantly Cardboard Citizens has not been taking theatre to schools for a number of years and we had no direct contacts to support our way in. Although, we had planned to employ a Schools Coordinator, with whom we had an existing relationship, and who had her own contacts.

We planned to employ a writer on the project. Could the writer’s process work within this tight schedule?

Although the project was designed and funded to go into schools, we had no firm commitment from our identified schools, just a conviction that it would be of interest to them (there just wasn’t the time to seek those contacts and have those conversations in the lead up to the application deadline!). But a niggling doubt remained – Is it something that they need and want? What happens if not?

Action Learning Set – high challenge/high support.

At the time when these challenges were being faced, I had been a member of an A New Direction funded Action Learning Set for some 3 months. During this period I had listened to presentations on particular work, sector, or career related questions made by other set members. I had contributed to responses, asking clarifying, then open questions to support and challenge the presenter towards identifying specific actions towards desired outcomes – all guided by the set’s facilitator.

Having decided to present, I had a decision to make: whether to present on a personal work related issue, or to use the opportunity to present on the A Heritage of Violenceproject. Having been reassured that it was ok to present on a specific project, I decided to do so. I’m glad I did.

Having prepared little, my presentation was rather rambling and garbled. I felt there was a lot of information to share in order to understand the provenance, context and ambition of the project. Having finally finished, I looked up and into some rather bemused looking eyes, and noticed the accompanying silence, eventually broken by the facilitator:So, what do you need from us?

It was a great question which, I felt, both forgave the lack of clarity of the presentation, and got to the heart of the matter – what did I need?

After another considered silence, I attempted:

Reassurance (did people get it?)

Schools sector knowledge (is it practicable within the schedule?)

Clarity (what do I need to do next?).

In which case, replied the facilitator, you’ll need to give us some more information – let’s move to clarifying questions.

In response to some of the clarifying questions - When is the project due to start? (soon); Have you made contact with schools yet? (no); Have you asked them what they want? (Uhm...no!) - I began to feel my heart, along with others, sink a little, whilst observing the odd sympathetic smile.

And then we moved to open questions:

Why are you doing the project?

Why focus it on schools?

Why should they be interested?

How would you sell it to a teacher?

What needs to happen to deliver the project within schedule?

What’s your plan B?

The aim of Action Learning is to be able to ask (and be asked) highly challenging questions in a highly supportive manner. It did feel like I was being given a bit of a grilling. But, this time, when I managed, mid-answer, to look up and into the questioners’ eyes, I was met with a subtle smile and nod of encouragement, as though willing me to find the answer to which I would, eventually, arrive.

One thing I noticed during open questions, was that I had the freedom to respond as the artist who had conceived the project and was able to speak with passion about it, rather than the bureaucrat (?) who needed to satisfy different sector needs (funder/science; arts; education). My conviction, that it would be an attractive and workable offer to schools, was given space to be articulated and heard - most importantly, the artistic conviction that it would be an innovative and impactful collaboration of: young people as actors and audience; science; theatre and education. The questions regarding how it would fit within the curriculum (etc.) were of course important, I just hadn’t conceived it that way round. Rather, my belief in the pedigrees of the Wellcome Trust, Cardboard Citizens (and our ACT NOW young people’s programme), along with the universal, human and vital nature of the subject matter, led me to assume that schools would find a place, within or without the curriculum!

We moved to identifying specific actions (mainly via who and when questions) which provided a plan of attack, a practical list of things to do, with deadlines which might, just might, enable the project to be delivered within schedule. The actions were writ large on a flip chart, for all to see, I couldn’t avoid them now!

Finally, the group was asked to offer an observation on the presentation, and session as a whole. Here, finally, I began to hear and absorb the reassurance I needed. Each person validated the project (a real relief), most expressed their belief that it could be achieved within schedule, a few (well, one!) that it couldn’t. Each person then wrote down one comment, by way of suggestion, or advice. These written comments I took away and read later that day, in the evening, over a glass of wine. Comments included:

It’s an amazing project – so inspiring. I think you can do this – go for it!

It’ll be tight, but I think schools will totally get this and want it.

It sounds great! I can’t wait to see it! It’s just about possible with time frame, but consider that plan B!

Sounds like what schools need, whether they realise it or not! I think they’ll want it and it can be done – good luck!

You might want to buy yourself more time. I really suggest you consider a plan B option! (this from the schedule doubter!).

I finished my glass of wine, and indeed the day, with the reassurance, knowledge and clarity I needed and had sought. I had a plan of action and the confidence to approach it, or lack of excuses to avoid it! The next day I got up and on with it.


Since my presentation, some 2 months ago, the project has progressed. As we approach the last week of term, the following actions have been achieved:

Contracted School Liaison Officer, writer and creative team

Have 5 schools in Tower Hamlets on board

Delivered 2 R&D workshops per school

Schools tour in process of being scheduled

Auditioned and contracted 5 young actors

Had presentations from Mindfulness practitioner and neuroscientist

Writer is inspired and well on his way to delivering 1st draft.

Rehearsals begin 18th Aug

Show opens 15th Sept!

A showcase performance will be scheduled at the end of the tour and we will be presenting the project findings and outcomes at a Creating Change conference in December. Watch this space. I hope to see you at one or other.

Outline of the Project

Stage 1 – The Heritage of Violence

The 1st stage of the project involved an investigation into ways in which the adolescent brain might have been shaped by childhood experience of violence, and how this might explain certain types of adolescent thinking, emotions and behaviours. Our resulting piece of theatre was performed site specifically at the Museum of Childhood, and included a “multi-media lecture” in which young actors assumed the role of neuroscientific experts, disseminating their findings to other young people.

Stage 2 – A Matter of Mind – the schools tour

The extension project will further develop this multi media lecture, to include further neuroscientific research into the effect of Mindfulness practice on the brain. It explores ways in which young people and teachers experience mental, or emotional, disorder within schools - what are the possible causes and consequences? We will be testing the idea that Mindfulness practice might help young people and teachers in schools cope with such mental disorder.

Working with 5 schools the project offers 2 workshops per school, researching the subject with young people as our consultants, and then returning with a piece of Forum Theatre, with integrated multi-media lecture:

Workshop 1 – is drama led and explores experiences of stress and anxiety in school.

Workshop 2 – offers a session in Mindfulness techniques.

Both workshops are part of an R&D process for both our writer Ali Taylor and me as director.

A Forum Theatre piece will be performed by 5 young people (with experience of homelessness) who will be professionally employed on the project. In schools it will provide space for young people (and staff) to try out different approaches to coping with experiences of mental disorder, including Mindfulness.

For more information about the Cultural Education Progression Network go here

AND is hosting three day-long events for senior managers in Cultural organisations. The events are designed to provide an opportunity for learning and the exchange of knowledge and are focused on key themes critical to cultural education in London. Book now

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