The Droves – When children make theatre for adults

In the light-starved world beneath a long-forgotten carpet factory live The Droves, a community of children who have quite literally been swept under the rug. Usually secretive, they’re opening their door to adults for just one week. But what will we find? This is the premise for the new show by award-winning theatre company Coney. Director Tom Bowtell worked with a group of six- to 11-year-olds to tease the piece – part immersive theatre, part escape room – out of the minds of primary school pupils, unfiltered by the controlling meddling of adults. He and Young Company members Aviv and Esme (both nine years old) tell us about the show, which promises to include mushroom forests and a gorilla:

Hi, Tom, how are you today?

Tom: I’m very well. We had a great rehearsal; it’s nice to start hearing them read roles. Aviv found lots of typos in my script, so that’s always good.

The Droves is a pretty unique show. How would you describe the process of creating it?

T: I’ve worked with kids for a long time. They think in different ways to adults and that has always excited me. The question I wanted to ask was, “What if we were to make an immersive show and put the kids completely in charge of every aspect?” Writing, story, design, even bits of marketing. I didn’t know what would happen, but I knew it would be interesting and surprising.

What is the inspiration behind The Droves?

T: While working with kids, I would always come across things that surprised, confused and astonished me. I have a theory that when we become grown-ups we become stuck in ruts. We’ve seen so many TV shows and films, read so many books, that stories have to go in certain directions. It is harder and harder for us to be original. But kids do it without thinking. Their imaginations aren’t “trammelled”, that’s the word I always like to use. I wanted to use professional training, and for the process to be in a professional setting, but to let the imaginations of the young people loose. If we say yes to the most wild, bizarre and impossible ideas, where do we end up? That is the ambition of The Droves.

Aviv, you have worked on The Droves for a year now, and Esme, you have just joined Young Company. How has the process of making the show been for you?

Aviv: At the start, they didn’t tell us anything about the show, just that we were doing something at the COLAB Factory, but we didn’t know what. I guess around the third session we started to decide what we were doing and started thinking of stories. Then we kind of mashed them all together and that was really fun. Esme: It’s fun learning the script as well. At the start there are two characters who ask you questions and then you go on to the next scene. And then you meet a lot of strange things.

What should audiences expect when they come to The Droves?

A: It goes in directions which you don’t expect. E: Fun! There’s a lot for the adults to do while visiting the world.

What words would you use to describe The Droves?

E: Enjoyable. A: Sad, happy, awkward. E: Emotional! A: Scary!

What has been your personal highlight while working on the show?

T: Getting to know the range of young people and also seeing how they work together. My worry was that if someone has an idea they would feel ownership over it and if that idea didn’t come through or got changed, how would that go? But we haven’t had any problems like that. They have all bought into the idea of collaboration and that it’s a shared idea. That was a relief. The concepts themselves have been bizarre… like the carpet kid. When that came out of someone’s head I remember being utterly delighted.

What have been your favourite ideas?

A: When there were seven of us we came up with these bizarre ideas… something about dumplings. It was really funny and some of the ideas were just so crazy. Some of them didn’t get put into the show, but it was so fun thinking of them. E: I like the security guards and making big characters.

Do you think the show has a particular message?

A: I don’t know. Maybe. T: I think it explores the roles of grown-ups and children – how much parents need children and how much children need parents. I think it makes us think about independence, freedom and safety, and how those things connect together. But I think I should stop there, because I’m projecting thoughts from my – vaguely – grown-up brain onto the world the young people have made. Having listened to the young people’s planning at the very start, I think that they didn’t set out to make a show which meant something, but to make a show which makes their audience of adults feel something.

Have you learned anything unexpected from the process?

T: I have learned that kids are better at spelling than me. I have learnt not to pre-empt and think they are going to start doing one type of story, as they will make a random turn and go down a completely unexpected avenue no one even knew existed. I think as a director I have had to pull back from putting things down or filling in gaps as they always come up with something better.

How is The Droves is different to other theatre and drama you have done before?

A: Well, it’s immersive theatre, so it is completely different as the audience don’t sit, they come with us. That’s the main difference. And it was created by children. I have done a few plays before and most of them have been like Alice In Wonderland. They are straightforward. You are not allowed to do anything different, but in this show you can do whatever you want, really. You can change the ideas because you made it, children made it.

Do you have a favourite moment in the show?

A: The beginning. E: The end. A: The middle is good, too.

The Droves plays at COLAB Factory from 17 to 25 February.

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