A note as In The Woods comes to a close


As In The Woods, our research partnership with Leeds Beckett University and Middleton St Philip's Primary School comes to a close, here's Martin Riley capturing what it was all about ... The premise of “In The Woods” already existed. I had written a piece that was a story and a setting and a challenge and a quest for Farsley Farfield Primary School. In this version the children were trained as “problem solvers”, working with John Mee of Alive and Kicking and teachers from the school. The training took place in imagined and mythical circumstances around the world, where the class became a task force dealing with environmental issues within a cross-curricular framework. 
For this new project I created a bigger more watertight world, a back-story and a role for John and the children and teachers that encompassed the whole project. Of necessity there’s enough material in it for a children’s novel or a play or an immersive computer game and it took the same amount of care and effort and attention to detail. 
The key to the world is Tom Wayfinder, an imagined character that I created, like the bespoke tailor who was my great grandfather, to fit the style and person and heart of John Mee. Using all that I have learned from working with Alive and Kicking over the years and drawing on the insights of Dorothy Heathcote and Sue Jennings I made sure that this was a character with a question, a dilemma and a quest – someone who needed the children’s help, someone who was close to John but not John – someone he could BE without ACTING. 
The simple narrative is that he is a man who has known love and loss and is looking for a place to call home. However, when he finds it, the place In the Woods – it’s in trouble and the only ones who can help are the children. That’s why he’s here – that’s why they are important – that’s why they are at the centre of the drama – that’s why the story belongs to them.
On the first day he presents them with the problem. During the other days when he is with them, before they must travel to the woods to complete their mission – he trains them up. But the way he trains them is to put them in some of the places he has been, all around the world, trying their hand at imagining and bringing to life those worlds in their own way – and solving for themselves the dilemmas that he faced. They also find time to try their hands at connected and thematic making and riddle solving tasks which will sharpen skills that will prove crucial when it comes to “The Real Thing.”
Fascinatingly, I never get to a part of this process except at arms length and have the results reported back to me – adapting later narratives and structures to John’s feedback and needs and the reported responses of the children and parents and teachers who took part – all of whom I have written into the world so that there is no “outside” no place where an adult stands outside the fiction and tells the children what to do or deals with it as an invention. The whole quest is treated as reality in the way that children play games in the playground. They never “pretend”. You be the King. I’m the Queen. He’s the Knave of Hearts!” “You’re IT!”
The research uestion posed was about making Imaginary Worlds – so, to give everyone absolute and total control over those worlds there even had to be room made for the children and parents and teachers not only to work on the imaginary situations that Tom Wayfinder experienced but also to imagine some for themselves from scratch.

Finally – as a coda to the project, the children were given the task, still in role, still within the world of the story, to make completely other stories as bedtime stories for one of the characters within the story – The Wild Man.
In theatre we talk about “the willing suspension of disbelief”. Another way of looking at that is “Permission to Play”. This happens when you read a book, accepting the world and characters and living through the narrative and dilemmas – also in a game. And in all of these there are rules. These rules, these expectations are not there to hinder or constrain – they are there to enable us to play the same game together. 
I am privileged and delighted to be able to work as a maker of these games and deviser of these rules. It’s at the heart of my story telling and scriptwriting and role-play. It’s something that began when I was still at primary school and bored with playing the same old chase game, started to invent my own with my friends.
In this project I had the extra privilege of being there on the final day and playing one of the antagonists the children meet with – Old Man Winter and so was able to see the extent that they had bought into the game, suspended their disbelief and (this is the best part) were able to become co-inventers of the world and the rules of the world as they went along. It occurs to me, writing this, that it might be great fun to work with a bunch of older kids, who had already experienced our style, to create a role-play adventure for some younger ones - then it would be not only creating imaginary worlds but creating creators of imaginary world creating scenarios.
Then I really will have completed the circle.


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