Bristol Old Vic Families Project

We’ve been designing and delivering play sessions to engage young children and their families in the heritage and history of Bristol Old Vic Theatre. We prototyped in late 2017, then ran 8 sessions in the summer term, all at St Pauls Nursery School and Children’s Centre.

In a very basic, boiled down form, we’ve been thinking about this subject as ‘Theatre’ and ‘The Olden Days’,  so we framed each session around elements that could apply to traditional indoor theatre. We thought about elements that would have been used in Bristol Old Vic to tell stories over the years. Things that were different to us telling a story in the classroom, or reading a book-

  • Scenery
  • Sound
  • Lighting
  • Costume
  • Props and objects

then recreating those elements through play in the classroom. It’s been quite a funny head-and-toe up-side-down exercise, because as grown ups making theatre we use children’s play to, well, make up plays so reversing that back down to explain theatre is rather topsy turvy!

Each week we set up a craft activity set around an element- hat making, shadows, painted backdrops, rainsticks and shakers- then left space for the children to explore. Inevitably stories began to develop and we followed impulses to go on journeys following trains, firefighters, cats, trees and children on madcap adventures!

Old objects from the propstore continued to play a big part in the sessions- children love exploring the items, with hands, mouths, ears and noses. Some were a little familiar, others completely foreign. There were also objects that created stories with parents:

  • picking up a set of bellows, a Somalian father explained that they used large bellows in his country for the fire, that he had a bog set and would get them next time he returned there.
  • playing with a tin loudspeaker, two women explained that they used those to listen for animals while hunting or to call to others across outdoor spaces.

again and again objects that we had one relationship to were shown to have very different stories to our players.

Lighting was a particularly interesting session. We blacked out the room and played with torches and shadows. Instantly the (usually rowdy) room became hushed and the whole hour was whispered! The group played more slowly, and explored the room and the objects in a completely different rhythm, even tip-toeing and moving differently.

The SS Great Britain were kind enough to lend us costumes and we all had a great time (parents  included) dressing up and becoming other people. The had a sort of puppet theatre built, that could be the box office, ice cream counter or tuck shop and this almost always became the stage for a final ‘show’ by the children.

One of the most lovely elements that we added into this set of workshops was ‘a walk to the theatre’. To round off the hour, we would go outside and imagine ourselves by Bristol Bridge. Using words and actions we would paint the characters and the atmosphere of the bridge in 1766, of the boats and harbour, then we would go on a journey along cobbled streets, past wonky pubs and eventually to the stage door. Repetition was a strong part of our workshops- each session would only change a little each week, and the walk was a lovely way to play the same game and cement the session. We would layer the story with sounds, actions and noises- running away form a bucket of slops; gasping at the sight of an elephant, handing our tickets to the usher. Finally, on the last week, we brought the children into town and did the walk for real. We found this to be a magical way of layering the past onto the present and something we intend to develop further. Lo-fi augmented reality if you like.

We’re excited to be continuing the work this Autumn. Thanks to St Pauls Nursery School and Children’s Centre and of course the Bristol Old Vic for inviting us to play with them!


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