You’re gonna be remembered for the things that you say and do

This week I watched the joyous production of Bugsy Malone put on by our Year 7 and 8 students.

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It was a terrific show – over seventy of our students were involved on stage across two casts. What was more remarkable is that the show only started rehearsing on 17th September, with the first performance on 23rd October! To put on such a professional performance in such a short space of time, whilst also keeping up with school work and all of the learning in lessons, is a truly staggering achievement.

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Tallulah and her dancers

It was a great team effort – the students worked with and for one another, playing the comic scenes brilliantly but also, in the case of Maria Amaral as Fizzy and Gemma Partridge as Blousey Brown, bringing some touching poignancy to the more emotional moments.

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The big “splurge”

Behind the scenes, our Sixth Formers and some older students from the main school made the show look and sound amazing. The set was designed, built, painted and decorated entirely by students from the Sixth Form’s specialist tutor programme – and it was spectacular. The band sounded great, and the technical crew on sound, lighting and stage management were excellent. The way that our older students supported the younger performers is typical of Churchill’s vertical system and our value of kindness.

Last week I wrote about the vital role of the arts at Churchill. I was left thinking that there couldn’t be a better introduction to that spirit than a show like this! Audiences were also treated to a gallery of A-level Art, Photography and Design work in the foyer, whilst refreshments were provided in aid of the Mend the Gap team’s Kenya expedition.

The final song of the show – “You Give a Little Love” – sums up the spirit of the show:

We could have been anything that we wanted to be

Yes that decision was ours

It’s been decided, we’re weaker divided

Let friendship double up our powers

The final chorus echoed out: “you give a little love and it all comes back to you; you know you’re gonna be remembered for the things that you say and do.” These students have already made such a positive difference at Churchill, and I know they will remember the experience for years to come.

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The cast from night two

Congratulations to all the cast and crew, and special thanks to the dedicated team of staff who made it all happen – especially director and mastermind Miss Bones.

 

 

The importance of creativity

On Wednesday, I was out of school at a conference for school leaders in Taunton. The conference was packed full of information I needed to know: the latest updates on school funding, on exam results, on Ofsted, on Department for Education policy, on teacher recruitment and retention….a lot of information! But, in the middle of the session on exam results, we were shown a chart from a BBC survey on examination entries in 2018. The chart showed the decline in exam entries across the country for arts subjects.

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Photography taken by Year 13 during the 2018 snow

The presenters at the conference told us that exam entries for the Performing Arts fell by 44% in 2018. This is on top of falling numbers historically: in 2015, the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Values, found that between 2003 and 2013 there was a 23% drop in GCSE entries for drama. Research carried out by Sussex University in 2017 warned that “music could face extinction” in secondary schools.

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The cast of Singin’ in the Rain

Of course, it is important for all students to have a secure foundation in academic subjects. Churchill’s core curriculum in our personalised stage (Years 9-11) requires students to take English, Maths, Science, and two more subjects chosen from French, Spanish, History, Geography and Computer Science, because we agree that a core curriculum of academic subjects is the right thing for our students.

But not at the expense of the arts!

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The performers at this week’s Young Musician of the Year competition

The creative arts is one of this country’s most thriving industries. We are world leaders in music, drama, theatre, film, media and art – there are strong, viable careers for our young people in the creative industries. If these subjects aren’t offered, we are closing the door on those futures. Even if you don’t go on to work in the arts, studying a creative subject brings with it much needed confidence, empathy, sensitivity, thoughtfulness, and reflection.

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Last year’s Junior Choir in action

What makes me angry is that ensuring all students have a strong academic core curriculum does not mean the arts have to suffer. At Churchill, the arts are thriving. The school is full of music, dance, drama, and art. This year, we have 72 students taking Performing Arts courses in Year 9 – five more than the previous year. We have 41 students taking Music – an increase of more than 30% on two years ago. And as for Art itself, we have 79 students taking Art or Textiles in Year 9 – ten more than the year before. All of those students study core academic subjects too!

It’s such a shame that schools up and down the country are reducing provision in these subjects. As Headteacher of Churchill, I will continue to defend our exceptional arts provision: our children’s creativity depends on it!

Singin’ in the Rain – Review

At one point in Saturday’s performance of Singin’ in the Rain, the character Cosmo Brown (Cai Williams/Ricky Parsons) delivered the line: “the show must go on. Come rain, some shine, come sleet, come snow, the show must go on.”  He nearly brought the house down.

Because this was no ordinary performance. Storm Emma and the “Beast from the East” had conspired together to shut down not only Churchill Academy & Sixth Form but much of the United Kingdom. Rehearsals were called off. In the midst of a Red Warning from the Met Office, Thursday evening’s performance was cancelled. Friday was also snowed off. But, with the words of Cosmo Brown ringing in their ears, the intrepid team of Mr Buckley, Mrs Lippe, Mrs Rees and Mr Stuart would not give up. The show – for one performance only – was on.

There had been no time for a technical or a dress rehearsal, and the two casts were combined and meshed together to ensure everyone got their chance on the Playhouse stage. But the cast and crew were so well-rehearsed, so professional, and so single-mindedly determined to put on a show that the audience would never have known it. Props and sets arrived on time, films flickered into life, and the rain fell from the sky right on cue. It was simply stunning.

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The actors adapted brilliantly to their shared stage time. Lucy Taylor and Molly Sprouting shone as Kathy Selden, whilst Melissa Harrold and Cara Crozier-Cole were hilariously grating as the none-too-bright megastar Lina Lamont. Jack Baker and Matt Hogg (R.F. Simpson) sparred with Ricky Parsons and Cai Williams (Cosmo Brown) with impeccable comic timing, supported by a cast as impressive in its depth and breadth as it was in the quality of its performance. But the show revolved around James Duby in the lead as silent-film-turned-musical star Don Lockwood. On stage for almost the whole show, James sang, danced and acted as though he was born to do it, holding the entire audience in the palm of his hand and bringing such energy and verve to the production that you couldn’t help but be carried along with it.

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This was a show packed with song and dance. From the chaotic comic choreography of “Make ‘Em Laugh” to the huge production number “Broadway Melody,” the dancing was exceptional. Singing was of the highest quality, whilst the pit band, conducted by Mr Spencer, would have held their own in any professional theatre. The melodramatic silent movies (and, later, the talking pictures) shot and edited by Will Maitland-Round had the audience in stitches for all the right reasons. And the unseen technical crew, running the props, costumes, set, lighting, sound and special effects for the first time ever, made the production look incredible and flow as smoothly as it could possibly have done.

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You might have expected the show to be tinged with disappointment, as it hadn’t turned out the way that everyone would have wanted it to. But actually, inside the theatre, the cast, crew and audience were united in a joyous celebration, as if the show had got onto the stage through the force of sheer willpower alone. We went home through the melting snow, singing the songs, and privileged to have been part of such a special, memorable performance.

Thank you to everyone involved – students, staff, and families – for making Singin’ in the Rain not only possible, but wonderful.

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Read this review on the Academy website here.

All photography by Neil Phillips – visit his website here.

West Side Story: Headteacher’s Review

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What a show! West Side Story ran for three nights and a matinée from 10th-12th February at The Playhouse, Weston-Super-Mare. I’ve been involved in school productions since the age of 12 and I’ve never seen anything so ambitious and so impressive. It’s not every school that puts on their show in a professional theatre, and we’re very grateful to The Playhouse for their hospitality and expertise. The facilities and the surroundings certainly added to the experience for the audience and the students lived up to the expectations, raising their game to professional standards. 

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Griff and Bernardo square up


Every aspect from the costumes to the choreography, the production design to the performances, the band to the backstage crew was first-rate. The whole cast and crew meshed together in perfect sync, with the dynamic set changes smoothly managed and entrances and exits sharp, crisp and timed to perfection. Once on stage characters were clearly defined – not just from the leads. The Sharks sashayed with Latin passion, the Jets dripped with urban cool, and within the gangs it was clear to see careful and subtle characterisation. The leads, though, were truly outstanding. I saw the show on the Friday when Adam Caulfield as Riff and Michael Nickells as Bernardo seethed and glowered at one another with all the menace and threat of young men who could not – would not – back down. The tension created between these two young men, on the verge of adulthood but still with the naïvety of youth, was wonderfully counterpointed by George Davis as Tony and the Anna Lalande as Maria. George showed from his first appearance that he had outgrown the petty squabbles of the street gangs, and tackled the vocally demanding solos and duets with great assurance. Opposite him, Anna Lalande was sublime – her voice filled the auditorium and captivated everyone. I was particularly impressed by Jodie McKitterick as Anita, who managed the transition from live wire joker to broken victim with real skill. 

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Tony and Maria meet


Of course, it was a production with two casts, and my sources from the Thursday night performance assure me that the other performers were just as impressive. Dr Wratten wrote of the second cast: 

“they not only did their own bits brilliantly but always acted as a team. Of course, some individuals shone – the challenge of the on-going aggro and fight scenes between the boys was always compelling and strongly led by Adam, Dawid, Jasper, Jake and Christian; the sheer Latin vitality of the Sharks’ ladies was brilliant, especially Nina, Ruby, Jess, Jasmine and Rosie. But the principals shone very brightly – the duets between Edward and Molly and Molly and Lucy were well beyond their years. The almost final, haunting piece between Maria and Anita would have brought the house down if everyone wasn’t silently weeping.”

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Dancers in action


The dances were no less impressive. In her programme notes, Miss Lippe commented on the joy of working with male performers with little or no previous dance training – if it wasn’t for that note, I would never have known. The commitment, timing and energy of the dance from the very first number was astonishing. Particularly moving were the interpretations of Somewhere in the second half, where imagination of what was possible gave way, horrifyingly, to what was likely.

My final word goes to the incredible twenty-three piece orchestra, which delivered Leonard Bernstein’s complex and challenging score with huge energy and sensitivity. Working tirelessly to support the performances on stage, the applause for the musicians was justifiably rapturous at the final curtain call. 

What a show indeed. Thanks to all the staff, students, friends and family who made the production possible. Everyone involved – including the audience – has memories to treasure for a lifetime.

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The Jets

In Production

 

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The cast of West Side Story 2016

This week Churchill has been buzzing with the excitement of West Side Story being performed at The Playhouse in Weston-Super-Mare. Well over a hundred students and staff are involved in this enormous production, which has been over a year in the making and is the culmination of countless hours of hard work, dedication and effort. Is it worth it? You bet!

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Programmes from some of the shows I’ve done…I got some of them signed in case the cast went on to be famous!

I know first hand what it means to be involved in a school production. My history with them goes right back to being second innkeeper in my primary nativity! However, it wasn’t until secondary school that I got fully involved with drama, working behind the scenes on lighting for many of our plays including Guys and Dolls, Our Country’s Good, Cider with Rosie, Animal Farm and Evacuees. The highlight for me was definitely the production of Twelfth Night we put on when I was in Year 13. It was a beautiful production and it felt like an incredible team effort!

I carried on my drama work throughout university and into my career as a teacher. I was in the band for Bugsy Malone and (my favourite show!) Return to the Forbidden Planet at my first school, and even made an appearance as Johnny Casino in our production of Grease! I ended up directing or co-directing productions later on in my career, including a heady spell of co-writing plays for our school to put on with the Head of Drama. We adapted the story of Faust in a production called “Tina”, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream became Fairylandatopia, before I returned to the Forbidden Planet for my final stint as director (in a production starring the now famous Jack Howard as Captain Tempest…but I didn’t get him to sign a programme!)

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The programme for West Side Story

Why do we do it? Let me count the ways! Clearly there’s the opportunity to learn such a range of skills in the performing and expressive arts area – performance is the ultimate aim. Acting, playing, singing, dancing, choreographing, directing and conducting all go into the show, alongside lighting, sound, costume, make up, set and production design and construction, stage management, marketing…the list is endless. The chance for young people to learn and practise these skills in a “live” context is invaluable.

Above all, though, it’s the connections that the production makes which mean it’s integral to the school’s calendar. The fact that so many staff and students need to work together as a single team towards a single goal galvanises the whole community, and shows that together we are so much more than the sum of our parts.

I know what it takes to put a production – the sleepless nights, the exhaustion, that bad rehearsal where everything goes wrong and you wonder if it’s ever going to work…but it always does. And when the audience is laughing or gasping or gripped in collective silence by the action on the stage, when they applaud and you just can’t stop smiling with pride – that’s when it’s worth it.

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Well done to everybody involved in West Side Story – I can’t wait for the next one!