21 Dec Our Conversation with Francesca Collier
Have you ever had an epiphany? That moment where everything in your life lines up, makes sense and you know exactly what you want to do? It’s exactly what happened when we performed ‘Silas Marner’ at Victoria Primary School in Leeds to Year 6 student, Francesca Collier in 2001.
We presented George Eliot’s ‘Silas Marner’ as a four-session residency programme developed for the then Richmond Hill Achievement Zone – a cluster of schools in the Richmond Hill area of Leeds – who wanted a participatory drama experience for their KS2 pupils using a classic text. The story was dramatised and explored by a four-hand team of actor/teachers and explored with the children over four weeks (one session a week of two hours). During the sessions at Victoria Primary School, we unknowingly inspired 10-year-old, Francesca Collier to come out of her shell, take drama classes and build a long-standing relationship with the Blahs.
Francesca is now a recently qualified Primary School Teacher, teaching the Year 3/4 class at Swarcliffe Primary School in Leeds. She is currently in her NQT year and is running a drama club after school for years 1 and 2. She has previously volunteered with Opera North’s education team (school years 2-9) and a children’s drama club called Planet Drama (school years 3-6).
When Francesca left school she studied Drama for GCSE and A Level, which led her to enrol at Teeside University where she studied ‘Performance for Live and Recorded Media’. When she completed her three years at university, she was unsure of what she wanted to do, so she took on some temporary jobs. In her spare time she ran an afterschool drama club for primary age and from there, she fell into teaching.
We recently connected again with Francesca and reflected on her relationship with the Blahs.
Q: Tell us about the first time you encountered the Blahs’ work.
I was in year 6 and I remember a man came in and I think a woman came with him, to perform Silas Marner. I was always really shy as a child. I wouldn’t speak in front of an audience and I hated attention. I remember they came in and did Silas Marner and they performed for us but we got to join in as well. I can remember really really enjoying it. It’s bizarre how those kinds of things stick with you.
After that I got really into drama. We had school plays and I was always in them. In Oliver I was one of the boys and in Wizard of Oz I was the wicked witch at the beginning – it was just a total change. Drama was never something I really thought about before because I was so shy. But from seeing the show, I ended up going to a high school to start drama classes and I did extra work and then obviously – ended up doing drama in school and then as a degree.
Q: Was there a particular moment, or do you remember that feeling, that thing that was really exciting to you at the time?
I remember a specific piece of music. The man was talking as Silas Marner, and I think it was the story as well that I was interested in – the storyline about a baby being left. I don’t know why, but I just found the concept really fascinating. It was a piece where the mum died in the snow. The play has some music to it, and I remember I could completely imagine that she was there. It was one of those things where I just thought, ‘this is great’. It was a weird feeling.
I live in East Leeds, you did school plays but other than that, there’s not really much out there drama wise. It was my first experience of participatory children’s theatre. I’d been to children’s pantomime, but it was the first kind that I’d actually seen the actual drama, where it wasn’t a comedy, where it wasn’t a joke and it was serious. I just remember absolutely loving it.
Q: Do you remember what age you were?
I was either in year 5 or 6 so either 10 or 11.
Q: Do you feel it added to your experience of education as a child, and if so, how exactly?
It’s hard because I don’t remember what the topic was so I don’t remember why they were brought in. I don’t know if it actually helped me academically but it really helped me personally, to come out of my shell more and to get an interest and a hobby. I’m not sure academically, because I’ve not got a very good memory!
Q: You re-connected with the Blahs during your PGCE Course. What happened?
It was quite interesting really because, basically the school booked them, the school that already had my placement in and I was taking the class. I got to see the work as a child, then I got to see how they work, see it as a teacher and see how they work with teachers.
Also, we had to do an alternative placement for a week – and I was working with them. I went to the schools with them, watched their performances and watched how the children reacted. Being there early and watching them set-up and watching them preparing things. I went back and did a mini-interview with them, just to see what they thought of it, what the kids thought of it and if it had actually helped. I also went to the Blahs’ offices and had a meeting with them, and we chatted and had a discussion about what the schools said.
It was really interesting for me as a trainee teacher to see why the schools have booked them and how they are going to use what they have done in their lessons in the future. Just to see how it all interlinks, because when you’re a child, you don’t realise, you just think someone is coming to show us a production and that’s it. It was nice to see how it all links and how they come up with ideas, how they question the children when the children don’t feel as if they have been questioned. So it was really interesting to see things like that.
Q: It must have been really interesting, seeing something that you were really inspired by as a child and kind of, re-enacting it later in life and seeing those steps to creating the work.
Don’t get me wrong, even though I’d seen them getting ready, I knew it was obviously fake, but when they would start to do the performance I would always think ‘I’m so excited, this is great, absolutely great!’
Q: Just to look at your profession now and what you do, what do you feel the Blahs contributed to that process?
I’m a primary teacher, now year 3/4, and I actually run a drama club at school so that’s Key Stage 1. Without a doubt, if the Blahs hadn’t of come in, I don’t think I would have had an interest in drama at all. Just because I didn’t have any other experience of it and I definitely don’t think I would have become a teacher. When I did drama when I finished university and I was doing children’s clubs, that’s how I ended up getting into teaching by doing drama clubs, and obviously without the Blahs coming in, then none of it would have happened. It’s bizarre when you start to piece it all together!
Q: It’s a knock-on effect isn’t it?
Yeah, but I bet that the Blahs wouldn’t have thought when they we’re doing the performance that a child will have watched it, ended up loving drama and becoming a teacher. I think it’s nice for them to hear that what they’re doing is actually working.
Q: I wanted to get your thoughts on the recent cuts of arts subjects happening at schools.
I think people in power see it as a bit of waste of money and time. They think about academically, you need English, Maths, Science but they don’t realise, like me, the knock-on effect that has. The amount of children that are so unconfident, speaking in front of a class, just generally making friends – they need a bit of drama. They don’t understand the social benefits of it and that’s what’s so frustrating. They don’t seem to grasp the fact that it’s not just an academic thing, it’s social.
When I left school in year 11, my teachers said that when I started drama classes in year 7, they described me as ‘painfully shy’ when I arrived, to the point where I wouldn’t speak unless I was spoken to – and now – I’m speaking in front of 30 children each and every day, doing assemblies, doing drama clubs. The thing I loved about it when I was younger, you know when you’re a teenage girl and you’re not very confident, you can be somebody else – and for me, I really enjoyed that, getting to explore somebody else’s thoughts, character and the way they move – it’s fun!
School shouldn’t be just sitting and writing, doing exams all the time, there needs to be fun. The children that I teach now, they absolutely thrive off doing fun things, like the drama club that I set-up. I absolutely love it and I was worried about starting it because obviously I didn’t know the kids very well. I thought it will just be a kind of club where there is drama games and in the second week the kids we’re asking me ‘when are we getting a script? When are we doing it?’ And that’s Key Stage 1! So they are 7 and under and they we’re saying, ‘when are we going to do some acting? We loved the games, but when are we acting?’. They absolutely love it, and if you think about Christmas plays and when they do assemblies and stuff, they just absolutely thrive from it.
It’s about doing something that you enjoy. Obviously not everyone will enjoy it, but it really angers me when you hear about cuts. I don’t understand. I just think it’s the worst decision they could make by scrapping it altogether.
Q: If you could give advice to a child just like you, that wants to get into drama, what would it be?
I say – do it! It sounds like a weird piece of advice. I’m so much more confident as a person, I’m so much more comfortable speaking to other people. So my advice would be, if you enjoy it – do it! And don’t worry about people saying ‘Oh, you won’t get a job from it’ because there is always a job out there. One of the main things that worried my mum and dad when I was doing drama at university was ‘what are you going to get out of it?’ and look where I am now. Everyone that I speak to that says, ‘I want to do drama, I want to do dance, I want to do music, but there’s no jobs’ – well… do it! Because you’re going to enjoy it and I did it and I got a job at the end of it.
Yes, if you do drama or dance you can become an actor or dancer but you can also do all of the backstage things, you can become a teacher, you can become anything. They try and put it all into one box and it’s not, it’s such a vast industry. It’s not like that for many subjects but the consensus with the arts is that you just categorise your subjects and your placed in a box. You are told that If you do drama, you become an actor; If you do dancing, you become a dancer; it’s either that or nothing and if you don’t succeed and ‘make it’ – it’s been a waste of time.
When I left university, I did plays and things in Leeds, so there is stuff available, you just have to look for it, but if you want it – that’s what you do. If it’s what you want to do, just make it happen.