On Thursday 8 September, whilst limousines were speeding to Balmoral, helicopters being diverted from Aberdeen Airport and corgis probably being shushed for one very last time, some 334.5 miles further south in Liverpool another gathering was about to loudly celebrate the life of one of our quieter heroes, John Airs.
The synchronicity of Madge’s passing with John’s putative ascension would not have been lost on him and many of us remarked on the timing of the gathering. In times like these, we like to point upstairs and imagine a moment when our dear recently departed encounters a welcoming angel with some words of comfort or irony. Imagining John verbally accosting St Peter at the gates of heaven helped ease the sorrow of the afternoon and conjure his presence back into the thick of things.
His presence led to many exclamations of delighted surprise: ‘Fancy seeing you again!’ or ‘Where’ve you been?’ or ‘And you are..?’ Whilst these gatherings can be uncomfortable in reminding us who and what we’ve forgotten, and why, the celebration of John’s life on Thursday stoked my memories of his contribution to the cultural life of Liverpool over what has turned out to be several generations.
I met John in my early days in Liverpool when he and Chris Ball of the Liverpool Education Drama Unit rocked up at the Everyman Theatre one day politely and insistently enquiring about how the Hope St Project was going to address the challenges of Theatre in Education in the city. The Project had had some rocky times from its onset and wasn’t the best of friends with many practitioners in the city who had seen the Everyman acquire a significant amount of funding out of the blue to deliver the project, which they saw, understandably, as being at the expense of their own hard fought projects and vulnerable organisations.
As the new kid on the block, the Hope St Project had its work cut out for itself from the off and whilst John initially approached us with a reasonable degree of scepticism, this was soon replaced with an energy of support and advocacy which enabled us to engage with his knowledge, skills and most importantly wisdom about the impact that drama could have on the lives of young people.
In the following years, I learned a lot from John about politics, theatre and the power of story. At the first national conference on the use of drama in museums in 1991, entitled ‘What’s the Catch?’, John spoke eloquently about ‘people’s need to learn about the past and repossess it and experience insights which could lead to change and growth’. Held in the Liverpool Maritime Museum many years before the Liverpool Slavery Museum was opened, John’s words have resonated clearly and loudly ever since: even more so with the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement in recent years.
John’s work in both drama in education and live interpretation were about placing the child – or the museum visitor – at the centre of the learning experience. He did this by using structured role play to bring out the voices of young people (or visitors) and the principles behind this work which he advocated for were:
- Give clear signals to the visitors / learners
- Establish the rules of the game at once
- Be aware of the use of language: questions allow the visitor / learner to take the next step
- Put the visitor / learner in charge by offering them a role
- Use physically shared props to give the visitor / learner a purpose for continuing the interaction
- The role player’s / teacher’s physical demeanour and body language is significant and potentially welcoming or threatening
- Status should be shared and rank should not be pulled. The visitor / learner should be made to feel superior
- Generating action leads to movement which helps the visitor / learner to follow the action without having to question, prejudge or negotiate it
- The use of humour helps relax visitors / learners.
Principles worth remembering if they help us to rest in not quite so much peace in our future tellings of our historical pasts.
This blog is contributing to The Mighty (Un)Mute, a campaign aiming to raise £5,000 to support the artistic creation for one of ten Globe Sculptures in The World Reimagined art trail across Leicester. The purpose? To recognise and honour those most impacted by the Transatlantic Trade in Enslaved Africans through the centuries to the present day.
The TMC staff team are going to support the campaign by taking part in the Mighty (UN)Mute, a day-long vow of silence, on the 5th October. If you want to join us on the day and take a vow of silence, then please check out the campaign here.
Of if the thought of donating your silence for 24 hours is really too much, then you can donate your hard-earned disposable income here.
Or if neither of these is possible (and heaven knows we’re all in tough financial times right now), then anything you can do to share and shout about the campaign would be equally welcome and appreciated.
So… come and help me to shut up, once and for all. You know you want to.