All roads lead to E-R-M-O

‘The puppets express confusion, shuffle and reorder themselves, only to find that their proudly emblazoned shields now spell M-O-R-E. On the third attempt they manage to spell R-O-M-E and cheer their own achievement with wild enthusiasm.’

This school is sited in a new building high on a hill with a wonderful panoramic view towards the sea on one side and fields on another. On the third side is a housing estate with an eclectic mix of difficulties, disturbances and statues. As we drive up the hill towards the school we pass a group of festooned bulldogs, a large mermaid on a roof and a twenty-foot high biblical statue that towers out of the small front garden of one of the terraces. In the prophet’s hand is a tablet that advises,’Your Honesty and Self-Respect Contribute to Happy and Safe Environments’.

Over the four days we spend in this school we make a puppet nativity show with 100 six to eight year old children.  On the first morning when we meet the children nothing of the show is present. Over three school days, that’s less than fifteen hands-on hours, we (a company of four plus three class teachers, two teaching assistants and one hundred children) create a whole show that is performed three times on the final day to a total of over 400 people.

The children devise the show. The most fundamental principle of our workshops is that what is created is their creation. Each workshop evolves new form and content within its own compass and is also fed by previous workshops – an ever-expanding organic toolkit. In this way, scenes evolve. One scene that has evolved in the puppet nativity workshops revolves around the four ‘Italian Battalions’ of the Roman Army, who are demanding that all citizens must return to the place of their birth to be counted.

The distinctive feature of these four puppet battalions: ‘R’ and ‘O’ and ‘M’ and ‘E’, is their lack of a strong spelling instinct. So, the first time they assemble along the top of the puppet stage they are commanded to shout out the letters of their battalions in order. ‘E, give me an E!’ and they all respond with a bellowed, ‘E!’, then ‘Battalion R’an ‘R’, ‘Battalion M’an ‘M’ and ‘Battalion O’ an ‘O’; then the lead centurion demands, ‘What’s’ that spell!’ and the battalions proudly respond, ‘ERMO’! 

The puppets express confusion, shuffle and reorder themselves, only to find that their proudly emblazoned shields now spell ‘M-O-R-E’ On the third attempt they finally manage to spell ‘ROME!’ and cheer their own achievement with wild enthusiasm.

Over two days the children make 100 puppets that range from these imperial soldiers, to the shepherds who dream of sheep that dance, to a lantern-lit heavenly host, to a ten-foot high angel Gabriel. The cast then spend one day devising and rehearsing their moves, carols and lines; then, they perform. Imagine one hundred adults doing that – it’s hard to picture how adult egos, inhibitions and fears would not fracture such an intensive collective space. The children always pull through. This time though we have a small problem during rehearsal with a single centurion in Battalion R. The teacher takes the child to one side. Whilst the other children are involved with shuffling their puppets around and learning the call and response sequence, I ask if we can reintegrate the lonely soldier. The teacher says that it is too big a risk. She says that if the child ‘loses it’, he loses it ‘big time’ and we risk all sorts of mayhem. As the creative process involves so much mayhem anyway, we are not usually bothered by a little more but the teacher is clearly alluding to underlying circumstances beyond our radar range.

When the soldiers have completed their concentrated rehearsal, the teacher asks if the child can stay in the hall and draw. And so he does. At the end of the day when everyone has gone and it is just the artist team left in the hall, we notice a piece of paper where the boy has been sitting. On it is drawn roman soldiers killing each other and above in big letters, ‘DIEY’.  On the way home we wonder how to include this child in the performance.

We decide, as the boy gets overwhelmed being part of a large group of ‘Ermo-an’ legionnaires and he likes drawing, that we will ask him to draw a large standard and for his puppet to be The Standard Bearer. It works. The boy is in seventh heaven. All morning he draws and colours in like a prize-fighter possessed by the prospect of a contest. In the show, at the moment when the Italian Battalions finally get the spelling right and cheer, high above them rises the standard of Imperial Rome, held aloft by a solitary soldier animated by one very proud, self-contained puppeteer aged seven.

It is ten years since we began making these large-scale creation myths such as the Aboriginal ‘Rainbow Serpent’, the Mayan ‘Huracan and Feathered Snake’, the Egyptian ‘Sun God Ra and Apep’ and the West African ‘Nyame and the Sky Spirits’. From the outset, engagement with these core myths of different cultures was an extraordinary experience.  Creation myths are about the mysterious relationship between the finite and the infinite – the essential paradox of how nothing becomes something. In fact you might say a metaphor for Workshop. You might even say a metaphor for Education. This paradox holds as true whether it is about the origin of a universe as it is about the origin of the universe. Watching children in a primary school giving expression to a universe of puppets, of sound, movement and unadulterated celebratory energy expands many universes. It was clear that there was correspondence between the content of the myths and the process of the myth being brought to life that resonated with the children. So what was that process? In this instance, it was a four-day workshop with, at the end of it, the visible face of a puppet show. However, underpinning the utter conviction of that performance are a billion invisible experiences and encounters that press out towards their own meaning.

So, what is Workshop?  In some ways its meaning is currently pretty vague. A term of convenience used to describe everything from a long-winded, dry lecture with a few questions at the end, to a free-for-all spontaneous group happening. But is there a core idea – a definition held in the collective consciousness, like that of a song, a concert, a play or a novel?

In truth the essence of Workshop is so precious we should be careful to keep its definition clear. Workshop is essentially about learning by doing. Learning and doing are no longer separated into: first you learn to do and then you do.  In a participatory workshop everything tends towards connection, we learn while and where we do.  Whether its productions are co-authored or authored by an individual they arise out of the encounters, experiences and events within that group, then and there. Nothing is turned into something. There is co-incidence as we, that is everyone in that workshop, engage with our most imminent ecology: each other.

The workshop artist has a unique dual focus on social process and creative process. The combination of these entwined dynamics give form to a transient community and the most important ingredient of this, as with all workshop experience, is story.  Experience is a story, is story. And always there is more than one story involved: the story of the leader (or guide or facilitator), the story of each participant and the story of the unfolding material. The glue that binds these tales into a manifest shape is their locality: time and place. Each time a group embarks on a workshop journey a new story is made that is unique to those people, then and there. A narrative community is formed.

The making of creation myths with children has opened our eyes to an array of possibilities. As a result, we set up events for other artists to share, reflect upon, expand and validate their workshop practice. Workshops on Workshop which we called, ‘Moveable Feasts’. This led to a network throughout the South West of England of nearly 400 workshop artists and eventually to the formation of a company: The Moveable Feast Workshop Company. In our first year of operation we have collaborated and mixed art forms to devise and deliver many workshops including – a conference for service users and providers, research for educators, training for emerging artists, creative renewal and inspiration for experienced artists, projects for disabled youths, youth arts at festivals, sessions for an international MA group as well as running many primary school events. Genuine Workshop is endlessly flexible; and always it allows us to be celebrants of something that is integral to the epithet, ‘human’ – our ability to story. We are as we tell ourselves. In workshops we can re-tell ourselves and, in so doing, re-create or re-member ourselves. And that is education.

The story of the boy with the roman standard was a tiny fractal of a big event. Without that moment the show would have been entirely different and without the show that moment could not have happened. We can have discipline and rigour alongside freedom and play because in workshop everything matters, nothing is wasted – it is not about success and failure, it is a journey from I can’t to I can. It is an ecological pedagogy.

Moreno, the originator of psychodrama wrote that, “we may survive in this changing difficult world only if we are able to perceive what is really going on in the ’here and now’ and if we are spontaneous and creative enough to invent new solutions.”  It is too late for us to be dictated to, we must discover for ourselves. Workshop as a popular form is in its infancy but it is crucial that it is not viewed as an educational luxury but positioned at the heart of an education founded on dialogue, participation and discovery. This requires us to embrace the central premise of 20th century science: uncertainty. We start all of our workshops with knowledge of how we will begin without ever knowing who will be the one to raise a new standard in Ermo. If, as in a prescribed curriculum, you know what is going to happen then you don’t come up with anything new, nothing is created, least of all solutions. You are not part of the fundamental generosity essential to generate active and creative culture. Our workshop experiences in art and education lead us to believe that all paths lead to Ermo.

What is Ermo? We don’t know but we’ll find out when we get there!