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The Silent Treatment – local youth work with Told By An Idiot

Local youngsters learn silent cinema skills and create their own short film with Open Theatre and Told by an Idiot

A group of budding young theatre-makers from in and around Coventry have been getting involved in a series of devising and film-making workshops held at the Belgrade Theatre last week, led by Told By An Idiot in partnership with Open Theatre Company.

Set up in 1984, Coventry-based Open Theatre Company has been working with young people with learning disabilities for over 30 years, providing opportunities for them to learn new skills and develop work using non-verbal physical theatre.

Known for its playful, anarchic approach to making theatre, Told By An Idiot has been exploring the human condition through larger-than-life productions since 1993. Alongside its critically acclaimed touring shows, the company delivers a range of participation and artist development projects through its Taught By An Idiot programme, with a particular focus on targeted projects with groups that are underrepresented in the theatre industry.

Following the success of previous collaborations between the two companies, the workshops held at the Belgrade last week formed part of Told by an Idiot’s ‘The Silent Treatment’ project to devise and produce a 5-minute, silent comedy film, which will be screened in the local area in late 2019/early 2020. The project (funded by The Norton Foundation) has been designed in conjunction with Told By An Idiot’s next production, which will explore the visual language of silent cinema.

“We’ve worked with Told By An Idiot before and like their style of work as it’s very similar to our own non-verbal theatre practice and we are always looking for ways to develop and enhance what we do,” explains Open Theatre Director Richard Hayhow.

“Told by an Idiot are also keen to expand their work to include more young people with learning disabilities so that’s a good basis for developing a partnership between our two companies. We are also keen to equip young people with learning disabilities in Coventry with a range of performing arts skills in readiness for City of Culture and what happens after so they are included in a whole range of work that the city will produce during this time.”

Led by Told By An Idiot practitioners Stephen Harper and Scarlett Plouviez-Comnas, participants experimented with a variety of different theatre making techniques, devising and presenting short comedy scenes that were then captured by Film City TV film-maker Adam Robertson.

“Through games and drama exercises we worked on stillness and focus,” Stephen explains. “The rules of improvisation were introduced – saying yes, adding conflict and surprises. Commedia del Arte was explored to add physicality and the idea of rhythm. The work of Michael Chekhov was explored – looking at the performers’ creativity and their role in the ensemble. We then put all this together in the creation of fight scenes and chases inspired by classic silent films.”

The results spoke for themselves – Richard and the Open Theatre team were thrilled with how much the participants achieved during the sessions – as well as how much fun they seemed to have.

“The group was from a wide range of ages and backgrounds and what was really impressive was the way they all learnt to work with each other and support each other,” says Richard. “By the third day when the filmmaker came in to try out some filming, the group worked incredibly professionally throughout a long day and helped create some amazing footage as a pilot for the real thing in the summer.

“They really understood how to adapt what they had created on the two days before to suit a filming process. One of the teachers who came along (in her holiday time) to see how her students were doing said she was stunned by how able her students had become in such a short space of time. All the young people spoke at the end about what a great time they had had, and when asked what was the best bit, most said ‘all of it!’”