Reflecting on the First PUSH Lab in Edinburgh

I had the great pleasure of attending the first PUSH LAB in Edinburgh in February 2017. I attended across the last 3 days of an 8 day artist development, residential LAB as part of a brilliant EU project that The Ark is a partner of. Following a year and a half of meetings, planning and the painstaking application process it is such a joy to finally get our hands dirty with the work. The important work of developing and advancing cultural work for young audiences through an innovative and highly positive artist development project.

PUSH is a 2-year project working with five partners in Scotland, Belgium, Ireland, Norway and Denmark to ‘push’ and develop thinking, ideas and the artforms within theatre and dance for children and young people in Europe. Already great working relationships and strong friendships have developed between the partner organisations. Having already spent time with our partners at the project development stage, at the launch event in Edinburgh in early November 2016 and having visited the Showbox Festival of our Norwegian partners in Oslo in early December I was excited to meet up again with these colleagues and continue our chats around our shared passion – theatre and dance for young audiences.

PUSH offers international, high quality opportunities for artists including: 3 artistic Labs, 5 European festival visits, 8 networking events, 8 public events, a bespoke website and a documentary film. It is primarily an artist development programme and focuses on three topics that are currently underexplored in work for young audiences through three 8 day residential LAB’s:

  • Identity How can we use performance to explore gender and sexuality with children… and should we? How can artists use their current skills and push themselves and the sector to create bold and radical work for children?
  • Borders How we can talk about migration and asylum with our audiences, including minority voices, in a sector that is not yet diverse and a context that is highly political.
  • Over-protection How can we protect children without restricting their childhood. How we can balance risk and protection, wildness and safety and take work outside our theatres – to shopping malls, to school playgrounds – opening up equality of access for our young audiences and their adults.

The first of these LABS took place in Edinburgh in February 2017.
The Identity/Gender Lab brought together fourteen artists from Belgium, Scotland, Ireland, Norway and Denmark to explore the representation of gender and sexual identity in theatre and dance for children. Led by Eilidh MacAskill, the group worked together over 8 days from Monday 30 of January to Monday 6 of February 2017.
The group were based at Lyra in Craigmillar, Edinburgh with a packed programme that included:

  • spending time talking and sharing ideas together
  • creating and delivering workshops for children & young people (with Lyra Young Company and Niddrie Mill Primary School P7s)
  • experiencing a workshop with Yvon Bonenfant
  • creating and performing at a the PUSH Scratch event
  • dancing the night away at the Summerhall Ceilidh Club

The Ark were delighted to have Anna Newell and Shane O’Reilly as the Irish artists participating in the first PUSH LAB. Anna and Shane were selected from an open call out to artist through The Ark and partner organisations and through extensive social media coverage. From the exciting and diverse applications we received Anna and Shane shone through.

I arrived on the evening of the 5th day of the LAB and along with my colleagues from the other partner organisations we joined in a workshop with the 14 artists. Through theatre games we explored questions relating to gender politics in our venues, countries and theatre practise. It was fascinating to see the differences between the cultures of our European neighbours and to explore where the taboos lie for each society.

The next day there was a public discussion around how programmers approach inclusion of gender politics in their venues or festivals of work for young audiences. As the Theatre Programmer for The Ark this was of real interest to me and we had a lively debate with artists, programmers, presenters and stakeholders from the theatre for young audience sector in Scotland and with our international artists.

That evening there was a scratch performance which is when different artists present to a small audience theatre projects they are working on but are not yet completed, in order to get feedback from their peers on the project to date. There was an incredible piece performed by a group of teenagers who lip synched and danced to well-known songs that tackle issues of gender or identity. This piece posed questions for the audience on our perceptions, our bias and what we consider to be ‘the norm’. I love scratch performances as they are filled with the possibility of what a production will be or can be. I also love being allowed into the artist’s process before the show is completed and getting to talk to the artist about their motivations, their research their future plans for productions.

On the last day we saw a dance performance that is almost completed that explores a growing friendship and the then relationship between two women. We watched this production with the PUSH artists and a group of children from a local school and we all got to explore our reactions to the piece.

We ended the LAB in Edinburgh with some reflection on the process and a celebratory meal for the all the artists and the partner organisations. There was plenty of lively discussion and it was a real pleasure to see the friendships that had developed between the artists involved and the huge respect they had for each other. I look forward to seeing what partnerships or collaborations develop out of this intensive experience the artists had and I can’t wait for the next LAB in Belgium exploring the over protection of children. My mind is full of ideas, schemes and plans for what to include in the LAB at The Ark in January 2018 when we will explore the theme of Borders and migration. I look forward to welcoming artists to Dublin to explore this important topic and I am delighted that we are a part of this exciting EU project.

Take a look at the video documentation of the LAB:

PUSH EU - Gender and Sexual Identity Lab from PUSH EU on Vimeo.

Find out more about the PUSH project

Maria Fleming is Theatre Programmer at The Ark.