A Happy, and Inclusive, Nativity.

As soon as children are back from half term, classes will start preparing for Christmas performances. Assemblies will turn into singing practices, boxes of robes and head-dresses will be retrieved from whatever cubby hole they’ve been hidden in since last year, CD backing tracks for ‘The Grumpy Snowman’ and ‘The Agnostic Pelican’ will be dusted off and the whole carousel will head round for its umpteenth iteration.

All of which is terrific for those children and teachers who thrive on that sort of thing. And all of which can be hard on the children who had just got into the routine of their new classes and now find it strangely changed, or for those for whom the idea of performance is intimidating.

Let’s face it. There are plenty of adults among our colleagues, friends and families who would do just about anything rather than get up and perform on stage. For every workmate who relishes a spot of drunken karaoke there’s a good few for whom the very idea brings them out in a cold sweat.

At Larkrise, the school I teach at, there’s a long and unbroken tradition of nativity plays going back to the dawn of time. Performance is given high status in the school with time and energy put into giving concerts and shows the best production values our (increasingly) limited resources can stretch to. We believe that regular opportunities to perform in front of each other, and audiences of parents and carers, give our pupils the chance to develop confidence which will stand them in good stead at secondary school and life beyond. The number of our children who choose to carry on with performance at secondary school suggests that, for those children at least, we’re getting it right. Nevertheless, I worry for the children who fear performing on stage, especially those on the autistic spectrum, or with similarly presenting conditions, for whom the focus on a show can be profoundly unsettling.

In the past we have found a few ways of ensuring that these children have the opportunity to be involved in the show on their own terms. It is a measure of the effectiveness of these approaches that they are generally but not always taken up – for, while I consider it a ‘win’ when the reluctant child takes their place in a performance, I do not want to be coercing a reluctant child into participating when they genuinely do not want to do so.

One method which has worked for me is to make participation in a show very fluid and optional for all the children involved.

For two years, in place of the traditional nativity, I worked with the children in Year Two to create a form of physical, interactive theatre which proved to be inclusive to all. I recorded narration for a version of a Christmas story and rehearsed with the children, largely through games, creating tableau and movement which brought the story alive. No child was required to speak, no one had to remember any lines, no one had to remember to stand in a particular place or had responsibility for a particular part. Instead, the children shared a responsibility to each other and to the audience to ensure the story got told.

In each of these two shows there was one character who took us through the story. However, that part was shared by the children so that many children had a go at being the main character and no one became the ‘star’ of the show. In the story of the old woman who believes she has nothing to give the baby Jesus but ends up cradling the infant and singing him to sleep so that Mary can rest we used a head scarf to denote who was playing the lead, in between scenes – or even within them – the head scarf could be passed between children to let them have a go. Once they had the head scarf on they could simply listen to the recorded narration and act out what it said. Being so familiar with the story, and having heard it told so many times through rehearsal, the children would even pre-empt the recorded story telling a little, building a the sense of co-creation and ownership.

In each practice and each performance the children opting to take the role were different, we even had a rule that if you had played a certain role in the last practice or performance you couldn’t play it the next time round. Children who would have been entirely put off by being told to remember to stand in a certain place and having to remember to part certain lines in a certain time were deeply involved and showed real commitment to the storytelling. I specifically remember a child who was an elective mute and socially withdrawn and who, I believe, would have excluded herself from performance if she had felt it to be compulsory.

Towards the end of our show that year a nativity scene was built up bit by bit as the narrator described the stable and the scene within it. The a narrator would say “and there, inside the stable, were two sheep and, high on a rafter an owl watched everything that was going on…” and a little parcel of children would walk onstage to become sheep while another found the cardboard owl and lifted it up in the air on it’s bamboo stick.

The last element of the scene to come into place was the old woman who was the central character of the show. On one of the performances our elective mute child left herself till last then, realising she was the last available body, calmly came on stage to take the place of the main character. She put on the head scarf, sat in the chair and accepted the baby put into her arms. She showed absolute attention to the child and created a moment of such quiet magic that the entirety of the packed school hall collectively caught its breath. This child would not under usual circumstances even have been considered for the main role, nor would she have considered herself for the role, however, under the very special circumstances created in the hall on that day, she was able to take part and play that role. The difference was that she wasn’t playing the part to make a spectacle of herself but to fulfil a collective responsibility that the story be told.

Elsewhere in these shows I would create opportunities for children to participate which would pass entirely unnoticed if no one took them up but would create a moment of theatrical magic if they were accepted and acted upon. In one show I included a mention of the sun moving slowly across the sky in the recorded narration and casually left a big cut out sun lying at the side of the stage. In one performance a child with profound special needs heard the narration, picked up the sun and moved with it slowly across the stage. He didn’t think anyone was looking at him, he just saw that the sun needed to be moving across the stage and took the little bit of responsibility to ensure it played its part in the show. For that child’s parents that was a moment of huge significance, for other parents who were unaware of the depth of challenge the family were facing it was just another part of the storytelling – no one was being ‘othered’ or made a spectacle of – the children were just ensuring the story got told.

The following year, in order that a specific child could be incorporated into the show, I made a set pretty lanterns lit internally with LED tealights and built into the show moments when these might come on stage. For the child with specific needs I made a slightly different lantern that he would recognise as being specifically his. The children, who were (and are) a beautifully mannered cohort who are able to be kind and inclusive, made space for this child to bring on his lantern when he chose to and didn’t worry in any way when he didn’t. In one of our performances to parents and carers he created a moment of absolute stillness and beauty when he came on to an otherwise empty stage and stood for a while with his lantern – I dimmed the lights a little and for a moment our hall, and his illuminated face, became the centre of the world. In the other performance he chose not to come on at all. Both performances and both his choices were absolutely fine.

Further up the school finding ways to incorporate children into shows without forcing them to do something they are not comfortable with can be even more creative. My own son is not an eager performer – he’ll do it if he has to but doesn’t enjoy it. By allowing him and children like him to operate lights for our shows (simply a matter of sliding six faders up and down) I give them a space to be passionately involved in performance – and to build that confidence – without forcing them onto the stage. It’s no extra work for me and it’s hugely satisfying to those children – it also seems to be hugely impressive to the children’s parents which is another cheap win.

There have been children who have been so averse to the change of routine and to the sensory overload of being in a crowded school hall with lights and music that involvement in the room would simply be either cruel or unfair. On some occasions, after discussion with parents, we have included these children on filmed segments. A child who would not be able to perform on stage but whose parents passionately wanted to see him represented in the show gave me film of their son playing a musical instrument at home. So that he wouldn’t be ‘othered’ or made a special case I shot film of other children playing instruments and quickly cut them together to make a video of ‘The School Band’ which was shown on the screen as part of a performance. The child was very happy with the video – especially as their wall at home was painted green so I was able to shoot the other children in front of a green screen and use Chroma key processing to make it look as if all the players were in the same place – which was an absolute wonder to all concerned.

The parents of the performance averse child were proud and delighted to see their child properly represented in the show and no other parent would have perceived that this particular child was being picked out for special treatment as their were plenty of other pupils in the video with them. Shooting and editing the movie was not a difficult or time consuming job for me and it was one I kind of enjoyed as editing film is always pretty fun.

There have been quite a number of instances where children have been involved in performances through filmed sequences. If you have more than the usual amount of patience you can sit through a few of them on my YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/user/EdJFinch  .

In closing; my tips for involving reluctant children in performance – whether they have special educational needs or not – would be;

·       Keep it flexible

·       Keep it fun

·       Keep the focus on the story not the performance

·       Find opportunities to make it ok if they join in and equally ok if they don’t

·       Communicate with parents throughout

Let me know if any of that has been interesting or useful to you – I’m on twitter as @MrEFinch. I’d be glad to chat if there’s anything else you’d like to know.

Have a great show and, if I don’t see you before, have a happy, and inclusive, Christmas.