Saturday, 15 June 2013

Eight Years in the Zoo

Paper Zoo Theatre Company will be eight years old in September 2013. Hard Times is our sixteenth production. Not a bad work rate to say that most of us are either in full-time employment, full-time students, semi-retired or, in the case of Julia, a part-time lecturer, full-time mum and home educator of two lively girls. 

The company was formed by the students of a BTEC National Award in Acting course that ran, one evening a week, at Bradford College. The initial intake on the course was twenty two; by the end of the course there were eighteen students, and of those eight had formed the core group that became Paper Zoo. During the course, those Thursday evening sessions became a really special time in the week. The students - most of whom were in their twenties or thirties - came with varying levels of experience, confidence, and knowledge of theatre and acting, but we all learned together and had a great time doing so. 

It seems unlikely that such a group could form in the current climate. The cutting back of adult and community education means that many of the courses like ours have been axed. The fees for those courses that do remain are beyond the financial capabilities of the people who might benefit most from the chance to express themselves, discover their talents and find a voice. We were lucky; the right people got together in the right place at the right time. I think that is one of the reasons that Paper Zoo Theatre Company is so special to us. Working together, in various combinations, is built on the trust and comfort of working with people who have shared the journey so far, and for whom the Company is an emotional investment.

So, we were founded in an educational context. Four of the active company members are teachers with a passion for theatre and the arts. Several of us have had relevant professional experience as actors, directors, dancers, and workshop leaders. We know the industry and have lots of links with people who work regularly in it  we also know, from experience, how difficult it is to get that first job, to gain the initial practical experience, to get your foot onto the ladder.

The Company ethos is one of giving young (and not so young) people the opportunity to gain the experience, and to take some risks at the beginning of their careers. Each of our productions has students involved in some capacity. It may be as associate actors, stage management, technicians or designers, but they work as our colleagues, to a professional standard. In the eight years since 2005 we have worked with more than twenty students. We receive no funding for this (we are totally self-funded) but we have great support from Bradford College, The Bradford Branch of the National Union of Teachers, and, in the past, The National Media Museum. Some of our associates have gone on to drama school: Laura Milnes completed her degree in Contemporary Theatre Practice from The Central School of Speech and Drama in 2010; Emily Thornton has just finished her first year at Italia Conti. Others work in theatres, or have gone on to study at Universities such as Huddersfield, Manchester Metropolitan, and Salford. 

For those of us who teach this is hugely rewarding. The Company gives us the opportunity to develop our own creative practice, to keep up with current issues in the performing arts, and to put theory into practice. To share a stage with our students enriches both parties - per-show nerves are a great leveller - we get to see them develop as performers and the students get to see that we do not ask them to do anything that we are not prepared to do ourselves. 

So that is why, eight years in, the Zoo is still going strong.