Michael Judge New International Encounter Theatre

As an artist working with young people, mainly in theatre and across art-forms, I’ve always emphasised the power of creative writing. It feels important to invite young people to be authors of their own work and to write the story that only they can write. They are invited to be free in their imagination, to write whatever story they want to tell. To be an author is to be a person who brings something new into being. Combine this with an invitation to write about the future and you have a potent mix. Often it is local and personal actions that can be most powerful in the context of global challenges. This article gives a picture of how writing about the future offers imaginative freedom for children.

I am working as Associate Director for New International Encounter (NIE). NIE is a theatre company with offices in Cambridge and in Oslo. Our mission is to ‘tell playful stories that connect us all’. The company does not present itself as ‘activist’ but we do focus on co-creating with young people. Inviting children to see themselves as artists, with the freedom to create, is a powerful tool for encouraging personal agency and activism.

In thinking about the co-creation process and my role working in partnership with schools, I often reference Paulo Freire, who articulates the political act of teaching in these words: “The student needs to have full responsibility as an actor with knowledge, and not as a recipient of the teacher’s discourse. In the final analysis this is the major political act of teaching. It is this which makes the progressive teacher different from the reactionary.”

The pressure on schools to deliver the national curriculum leaves limited space for discovery and for creativity, so this is an area where the arts have a powerful role, because otherwise creative acts are not valued.

The late Sir Ken Robinson, tireless champion of creativity, makes a point about the value of creative writing, not just in school, but in the world of academia: “Why is it that in universities writing about novels is thought to be a higher calling than writing novels; or rather if writing novels is not thought to be intellectually valid, why is writing about them? What is going on here?”

It’s a difficult but exciting moment to be faced with a blank page. Adults find it hard as well as children. Actually, adults probably find it harder. When was the last time you were able to write whatever you wanted?

Unless you are a writer, that is. Children in schools can find it hard. This is in part because the current education system is prescriptive, and teachers do not feel they have permission to create open-ended tasks. However, often it is liberating, and produces exciting results.

NIE runs a co-creation programme with schools in Cambridge and writing and storytelling are key elements of this. One of these programmes, in partnership with theatre companies in six other European countries, invited 3000 children to write about the future in fifty years’ time. The project1 was targeted at children 7-12 years old. When we first met to plan the workshops, we chose not to lead with themes like climate change, for example. We wanted the children to have the freedom to write whatever they wanted. The theme was the future, yes, but they were free to imagine it as they wanted. The stories that were written had a varied range but there were, alongside stories of robots taking over the world, a significant number of stories that spoke of the need for humanity to produce less waste. In the context of environmental justice, some of the children chose to write about saving the planet, not because that was the theme of the project, but because that was the story they saw in the future.

Our current project is very local to Cambridge, set in Cherry Hinton Hall Park. The project began with a school trip to the park. We don’t yet know how this project will end, as lockdown interrupted, but we will ensure that the children are free to be as creative as possible and to take responsibility for how they see the world and how, potentially, they might change it.

1. ‘I Will Be Everything’ transeuropean project funded by Creative Europe working with Primary School children across seven different countries.   nie-theatre.com/productions/i-will-be-everything


Michael Judge has been working with young people and theatre for 20 years. He has worked as an Associate for the Royal Opera House, Theatre Centre and Dundee Rep and with the British Council in Brazil. He is currently Associate Director at New International Encounter (NIE) theatre, an award-winning theatre company based in Cambridge and Oslo where he co-creates projects and shows both with and for young people.

More information: talesfromtheedgeoftown.com; nie-theatre.com.


This article was first published in 2021 in Vol 126 of the NAEE journal which is available free to members. This edition was an arts-themed special, written with Cambridge Curiosity and Imagination.

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