‘‘People with learning difficulties often find it hard to remember things but these people certainly have no problems remembering their drama,’’ Annette Lidster, the Artistic Director of Razed Roof, tells an audience of primary school children.
DG writer, Catherine Ridge joins the audience at Harlow theatre company's latest performance, then visits backstage to discover what makes the group so successful.
A captivating performance
Watching InForm at the Harlow Playhouse, an audience of lively primary school children are transformed into almost-silent wonder as they are completely mesmerised by the vibrant performance given by Razed Roof.
The InForm project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, is a cultural appreciation of Harlow’s history as it celebrates its 65th birthday. It is inspired by the town’s iconic sculptures and created from personal reminisces from older residents. Working in small groups, where disabled adults mixed with sixth-form students from Sheredes School in Hertfordshire, Razed Roof members recreated scenes based on these stories which contributed to the final production.
From the opposition of the original residents in response to the proposed development, to the experience of the first families raised in the new town (embodied by Henry Moor’s Family Group sculpture), Razed Roof’s imaginative performance encapsulates and celebrates the history of Harlow in a truly original way; delighting young and old alike.
Harlow Star reviewer Keith Watson perfectly captures the atmosphere created by Razed Roof: ‘‘Bringing people together from a wide variety of backgrounds is what the ‘new town’ did in 1949. This feel for community was exactly what Razed Roof achieved in front of a packed audience in the main auditorium of Harlow Playhouse.’’
The rise of Razed Roof
Founded in September 2004, Razed Roof is an inclusive performing arts group for people with and without disabilities and learning difficulties. Built on the philosophy that the performing arts provide opportunities to improve the quality of life for everyone involved, the group originally grew out of the work of the Harlow Community Arts Group.
Prior to this, Annette Lidster, the founder of Razed Roof, worked as a special needs dance teacher at Harlow College. During this time the college was fortunate enough to be visited by a successful drama company which involved mainstream students from a range of curriculum areas working together with special needs students on a highly rewarding week-long project. Inspired by this way of working, Annette quickly became convinced that this was the only way forward and soon the inclusive Community Arts Group was formed. Before long the group had succeeded in impressing judges from the National Theatre, which ran a youth drama project commissioning plays for young people.
Working on scripts by established playwrights, the company's impressive achievements include a string of successful performances both locally and nationally as well as receiving various prestigious awards, culminating in being selected as a finalist for ‘The National Lottery: Best Arts Project Award’ in 2011. Although the group missed out on the top prize they were not disheartened. They were part of an evening of celebration which helped make the Razed Roof group even stronger.
Today, the company of up to forty participants is comprised of adults with specific learning difficulties and disabilities and young people from mainstream education who work together for over six hours each week with the support of an experienced team of staff. Its members are provided with theatre skills training and opportunities for performing publicly, as well as building essential social skills and confidence.
Reaching for the stars together
During a question and answer session following the InForm performance, Annette explains to the school children how the company’s name was initially conceived. Its double meaning is based on the idea of “raising the roof” with their performance and the word,“razing” which means to destroy completely or cut off. She says, ‘‘cutting off the roof enables us to look up to the sky and beyond where we can fly high.’’ Metaphorically speaking, the sky is the limit. This analogy of aspiring high reflects the whole ethos of Razed Roof.
Within the group there exists a wide variety of individuals with differing backgrounds, ages, needs and abilities. Despite their differences, they are all given what Annette calls, ‘‘a sense of their own importance and value.’’ Their focus on inclusivity is demonstrated to me when I am invited to join them backstage. I am immediately welcomed and included as part of the group, and encouraged to take part (despite my initial reluctance) in their workshop activities.
The plays Razed Roof select always evoke imagery and the potential for movement work. The script is adapted so that the story can be told through words, music and dance; allowing full participation from each individual. In this way, Annette reinterprets plays, skilfully channelling what people can do and bringing out the best of their abilities. According to Annette, ‘‘the group’s members bring something that as a director you could never plan. You take what people bring to you and you celebrate it.’’ High standards are always expected and the participants rise to this. What Annette values about Razed Roof is that ‘‘it shows the competency of our students, rather than the incompetency.’’ The end result is what makes the experience so amazing, since ‘‘performing is such an empowering and fulfilling feeling.’’
Annette lights up when she reflects on the times she has seen people with learning difficulties, who can often lack independence and confidence in real-life situations, do things they have never done before and ‘‘get involved and excited through drama.’’ She says, ‘‘I see very different people. They just grow.’’ Annette mentions a particular member with Down’s syndrome who struggles with everyday situations but when performing has ‘‘so much stage presence.’’ Seeing such people achieve is one aspect that makes her job so rewarding.
It is not only the special needs participants who benefit from the Razed Roof experience. Non-disabled students can also be seen to ‘‘grow’’ as they think more about others and develop problem solving skills in ‘‘enabling other people to be successful, suddenly realising that it’s not about me but it’s about us and some of us have got amazing talents.’’ Many people would think that having someone in a wheelchair in a dance would be impossible, but Annette assures me, ‘‘what you have at first assessment appears to be an obstacle but it actually becomes a real enhancement. It’s about finding ways to make what you’ve got really important.’’
As the world should be
The inherent community feel of Razed Roof is something they also aspire to achieve in wider society. Several members allude to the motto of project manager Mandy Jacobs that ‘‘Razed Roof is as the world should be.’’ Annette adds, ‘‘It’s always a positive camaraderie, all about seeing people being successful.’’
Yet even challenges offer new opportunities for Annette, from securing funding to improving provision for the disabled. Once, there was a stage manager who expected them to use steep stairs backstage, which involved manhandling the disabled participants and their wheelchairs up concrete steps, but Annette maintains, ‘‘It’s a matter of talking to people, explaining our needs and getting people on our side.’’ She believes that this in fact is a positive thing because it helps raise awareness: ‘‘It’s just highlighting people’s awareness that they need to tweak things a little bit to enable, rather than disable.’’
The comments posted by members on the Razed Roof website are a further testament to the group’s accomplishments and how it has impacted on the lives of all involved. One participant expresses, ‘‘It makes me happy,’’ while another declares, ‘‘It’s my dream.’’ Someone else says, ‘‘Razed Roof makes me feel important.’’ And many will agree with this final statement that ‘‘all we have learnt will remain with us for the rest of our lives.’’
To find out more about Razed Roof visit: www.razedroof.btck.co.uk
With special thanks to Annette Lidster and Razed Roof