Jan 2019: meetings with Rowan Tree; research
Feb 2019: 2 days R&D with 3 actors: images and physicality
July 2019: meetings with Rowan Tree; planning
Sept 2019: 2 days R&D with 3 actors: images and physicality
Sept 2019: first workshop with creative advisors: games, food, ideas, sharing some scenes
Jan 2020: second workshop with creative advisors: games, food, planning
Oct 2021: 4 days R&D including 1 day with creative advisors: images and characters and design
Oct 2021-March 2022: dramaturgy research period
March 2022: 4 days R&D including 1 day with creative advisors: dramaturgy and sound and design
June 2022: 4 weeks R&D including 2 days with creative advisors, 25minute sharing with school children in Luton after 3 weeks, 55 minute sharing with audience in Kent (including children in care system) after 4 weeks, creative advisors feedback / workshop
Sept-Dec 2022: script development and writing period
Jan 2023: final creative advisors workshop
Feb/March 2023: creation period
25th Feb 2023: premiere
4th March 2023: creative advisors see finished show in Canterbury; post-show workshop; larger workshop with children in care in Kent
"it’s their story finally being shared and it’s given them the opportunity and the permission to talk about it"
Emily Eversden, participation director
Theatre has the power to reflect experiences back to us. It holds up a mirror to life. But not everyone’s reflections are given equal space.
This was one of the starting points for Belongings: a desire to reflect the under-represented experiences of young people not living with their birth parents. Bryony Brooker and Justine Staley, the co-founders of Rowan Tree Dramatherapy, wanted to work with Tangled Feet to create a space where the voices of children in care could be heard by a wider audience.
But it was clear to everyone from the start that this would not be about directly representing the experiences of the young co-creators. As dramaturg and writer in the room Shireen Mula explains, “we’re not there to take their stories […] and put them on stage”. Instead of creating documentary or verbatim theatre, Tangled Feet work through image, metaphor and physicality.
One of the earliest images to emerge from the workshops with the young co-creators was the use of mirrors. “There was this idea of reflection and self-image with the mirrors,” says Curry. This has travelled all the way through from the first R&D sessions to the public performances, which feature a mirrored floor that reflects the characters back to themselves at key moments in the narrative.
"There are definitely layers, and some of the process feels closer to the surface and some of the process is buried deeper."
Pedro De Senna, creative consultant: adoptive father
Another of the metaphors that has been woven through Belongings since the very beginning is clothes. The idea of dressing up - of trying on different identities, of using clothes as a way to hide or fit in - was quickly grasped onto by the co-creators. Staley remembers the role of clothes in the early workshops:
“We played a lot with clothes in the research and development and the young people would create images out of clothes and step back and say ‘that reminds me of when I did this with my mum’, or ‘that reminds me of my social worker when they did this’. So the clothes become this projective tool.”
As anyone who played at dressing up as a child knows, clothes allow us to inhabit different roles and experiences. We can step - quite literally - into someone else’s shoes. Clothes are also a simple visual shorthand. A suit jacket, for example, can immediately suggest a figure of authority - a lawyer or a social worker. Tangled Feet played with these associations throughout the process, using clothes as a way of exploring other people, such as the absent adults who control so much of what happens to Cleo, BT and Leila.
This principle of trying on other people’s experiences is also at the heart of what the show is trying to do. As well as reflecting back the lives of children who live apart from their birth parents, Belongings aims to provide insight and generate empathy from audience members who have had no direct contact with the care system. Eversden suggests that
“Theatre is just a really powerful way to do that, because you can show something and it has had a really emotionally-led response with our audience. They’ve immediately felt something and understood, and it’s sparked that empathy within them.”
This element of empathy was crucial for the co-creators, who were keen for spectators to gain a greater understanding of what it’s like to live in care. As Billy puts it, “I just wanted people to get the feelings that the characters feel and understand that that’s the feelings we feel”. By showing familiar games and representing feelings that all children will have experienced, the show offers a way in for young people who may have never previously thought about the care system.
While the clothes have remained a central part of Belongings, the way they are used has evolved over the course of the process. As Curry explains, “we used to do lots of dressing up, and now it’s more the fabric of the world they’re in”. In performance, clothes signify a range of different things for the three characters. They are a tool of belonging - something that allows the children to create a sense of home wherever they are. When Cleo arrives at the foster home, BT and Leila each have their clothes spread out around them on the floor, marking out their territory. Clothes are also used to transform into other people, or to represent those who are absent. And the wrapped-up bundles of clothing and the clothes rail on wheels suggest transience and mobility, conveying the impermanence of these young people’s lives.
Trevenen traces the development of this theme of transience in the show's design. One of the things that most interested her in the early R&D sessions was "this transient existence that these young people experienced and how objects might help you create a sense of a constant space". As she explains, Trevenen always tries to include a dynamic piece of set - "something that is going to heighten the experience of the performers and the characters just by moving or by the performer interacting with it" - in her designs for Tangled Feet. Linked to ideas of transience and movement and to the use of clothes, her starting point for this dynamic element was the Hills Hoist: a rotary clothesline that children can swing from. Over time, this gradually became a more abstract frame on wheels that could both act as a clothes rail and propel the performers around the space.
Having developed over such a long period, the show itself has these multiple layers. Peel back a coat and you’ll find a jacket or a jumper. For Curry, “it’s about how the process can be seen in the show somehow”. Beneath the images on stage there is a richly textured history of development, play, feedback and reflection. Looking back across the process, the actors can track the evolution of these moments and how they have been refined through the cycle of exploring, sharing and polishing. Harris Cain, who plays BT, singles out one particular scene that demonstrates this:
“There’s a scene where BT plays grown-ups and he’s mimicking a judge, a social worker and a teacher with the blazers. That’s come a very, very long way from the first time we presented that scene in front of an audience at the Canterbury preview where it was BT and Cleo’s characters just being teachers with coffee mugs and talking about how great BT is at running and how much faster he is than Cleo. Then that completely changed within the two weeks of rehearsal.”
From a designer's perspective, Trevenen explains that it's often about playing with images and then slowly figuring out what they might signify within the context of the show. "It feels like a bit of a puzzle with a lot of the images," she says. "You kind of have an idea about something and it takes a long time to find out what that means. It’s like an instinct, and then you suddenly discover ‘oh, it’s that, of course it’s that’." Similarly, composer and sound designer Guy Connelly was in the room throughout, where he "made offers of sounds and music" which evolved over the course of the process. He offers the example of his song 'Shadower', which he first introduced in the early R&D workshops, and elements of which were retained and used in key moments of the show.
The experience of the show is layered for audiences too. Depending on the identities and life experiences they bring with them, spectators might access different levels of meaning. For young audience members, it will be different to watch depending on whether they live with their birth parents, whether they’re fostered, whether they have been adopted, whether or not they’ve had contact with the care system through friends or family members. Likewise, adults will respond differently to the show based on their own experiences of caring and being cared for.
"We wanted to get that hard-hitting, sadder, darker content in it, because we didn’t want to shy away from the reality of these narratives"
Shireen Mula, dramaturg and writer in the room
From the moment that BT engages young audience members in games as they enter the theatre, Belongings is an inherently playful show. This reflects the process, which constantly used play as a way of forming relationships, exploring ideas and generating material. But it was equally important to honour the reality of the young co-creators’ experiences, which are not all fun and games.
Reflecting back on the initial workshop with the co-creators, Brooker captures this duality. She remembers the young people’s “playfulness”, but also stresses that “there was this real dark and sad and difficult side”. It was essential that the show captured this side of life in the care system, while holding both the co-creators and the eventual audiences.
Throughout the process, lots of care and effort went into facilitating a safe and supportive space, gradually building trust with the co-creators. Staley and Brooker were central to this, acting as a constant presence in all the sessions with the young co-creators. For Curry, it's all about the environment that the creative team builds in the workshops: “You create an atmosphere so after the eighth session someone can say - which happened in this show - ‘I dream in shadows so you have to have shadows in there’.”
Shadows became another central image in the performance, suggesting the darkness that the three young characters have experienced in their lives. The initial prompt came from Billy. “I brought in the idea of the use of shadows in the play,” he recalls. “As we progressed on that, everybody added their own little ideas to build up that idea.” In dream sequences within the show, the characters encounter a world of shadowy objects that take on a life of their own. Without ever being made explicit, these moments give form to the fears and anxieties felt by Cleo, Leila and BT.
Although the show is made for young audiences, the company didn’t want to over-simplify the story they were telling. As Curry explains, “all of Tangled Feet’s work is about trying to understand the complexities, the tensions, the strangeness, the joy and the tragedy of being alive, and I didn’t want to not do that with making work for young people”. The actors agree that it’s important not to talk down to the children watching. Jesse Bateson, who plays Leila, points out that “kids are clever and have feelings and emotions and just to name that and to share that is really important, and to not be patronising about it”. They also believe that young audiences can handle more than adults might think. “We need to give kids more credit,” insists Carla Garratt, who plays Cleo. “It’s important to get gritty with kids so they can be like ‘oh, I feel seen’.”
Part of that is also allowing audiences to take away their own impressions. As Eversden explains, “it’s really important in all of our work with Tangled Feet that we leave our audience with questions, that we don’t tie everything in a bow, that we leave them thinking about their own lives”. Mula adds that, in Belongings, “we’re quite ambiguous and the reason is to allow the audience members to put their own interpretation onto that and to use their imagination”.
This darkness and ambiguity brings with it a duty of care. Another aspect of the process is thinking about the experience of young audience members beyond the performance itself. Tangled Feet and Rowan Tree have created a detailed resource pack to accompany the show, full of questions and creative activities for adults and young people to work through together. Young audience members are invited to write messages to the characters in the show and to imaginatively explore any difficult feelings that the performance may have stirred up.
Within the performance itself, meanwhile, the stage manager emerged as an unexpected caring figure. While Belongings focuses on children in care, leaving the adult characters offstage, during rehearsals and early performances stage manager Josephine Tremelling started to represent the role of the foster carer looking after Cleo, Leila and BT. As well as holding the performance itself, the stage manager - who remains visible on stage throughout - provides a similar sense of structure and safety within the narrative of the show.
This is the kind of detail that can only emerge organically from the care underpinning the process. As Bateson notes, that seeps into the performance in subtle ways: “because there was so much care put into the process and making sure that all of those stories and journeys are held in quite a gentle way, even if they are emotionally intense, they still feel safe within us telling it”. From Rowan Tree’s perspective, it is this sense of care at every step, and for everyone involved in the process, that makes Belongings what it is:
“The whole of the Tangled Feet crew understood fully that if the six young co-creators were really held at the centre of everything, and in holding those six young people at the centre of everything, they were really holding children in care at the centre of everything, which was key to the show’s success.”
Justine Staley, Rowan Tree Dramatherapy
It starts with play and it ends with play.
Throughout Belongings, Cleo carries a parachute in her backpack. It’s her safety net - the thing that will protect her if she trips and falls. But when we first meet her, the parachute is broken. It no longer works and she’s left flailing in freefall. The show follows her journey to try and fix the parachute - to mend her relationship with her mum, who has been struggling to care for her. But eventually, Cleo learns to engage with this central object in a completely different way. Together with Leila and BT - and, eventually, young members of the audience - she inhabits the parachute as a space of playful exploration.
This is dramatherapy in action. As Mula explains, “something that had caused [Cleo] trauma, or continues to cause her trauma, is no longer scary to her, but it’s something that is still a part of her in that she wears the parachute but now she has more agency and more control over it”. The process of gaining agency over difficult experiences is central to dramatherapy, as Curry explains:
“I said to Justine, tell me what happens in dramatherapy, talk me through it. And she said this thing about trying to find some sort of metaphor - it might be an image, it might be a place, it might be a character, it might be a story - that that young person has offered up that articulates their life. And then they have to get inside it and they have to open it and realise that whatever has happened to them has also made them them, and it’s both really hard but also a superpower because it’s unique.”
The trust that Cleo builds with BT and Leila and the transformation she undergoes with her trauma are both mirrored in the making of the show and its reception. Throughout the creative process, Tangled Feet worked with the young co-creators to build a safe environment in which they could explore the experiences of children in care through metaphor, image and play. “That’s what co-creation means to us,” says Eversden, “creating a whole company where [the young co-creators] feel empowered and safe and free in the space to give their opinion, and also for the creative team to learn from them and hear and witness all of those things first-hand.”
Curry agrees that “it is dramatherapy in many respects, because it’s about metaphor, images, character”. Trevenen echoes this when describing her role in the R&D process as the designer: “I’m thinking about the dynamic potential of the objects and the dynamic potential of materials, in the same way that if you offer something into a dramatherapy session, it’s always a tool to reflect a different part of your experience rather than it being the object itself.”