Serendipity Cottage

27 January 2011

David Taylor

Alfreton-born playwright David Taylor

Article by Rachael Nicholls

The stage was set for a thought-provoking experience when young people from Alfreton Grange Arts College had the opportunity to work on a professional theatre production which reflected their own community's social and cultural heritage.

Funded with the help of Aimhigher Derbyshire, this unusual project gave learners a fascinating insight into all aspects of the theatre industry - from directing, playwriting and acting to set, sound and lighting design.

At the heart of the project was Serendipity Cottage, a play penned by Alfreton-born playwright David Taylor and produced by Jocelyn White, both of whom actually attended the Arts College in its days as Mortimer Wilson School. The work is based partly on David's own memories of growing up in the area as well as family stories passed down the generations.

When newly-formed theatre company M.A.D.E. Productions chose the play for its first public performance - in the College's own theatre - it was the cue for a much broader community initiative to help pupils shine through the performing arts.

Over four weeks, the learners took part in workshops which not only highlighted the diverse professional roles which come together in a theatrical production but also raised awareness of creative and cultural courses in further and higher education. Ideas generated in the workshops were then showcased during the final production of Serendipity Cottage.

As rehearsals for the public performances swung into action, pupils also had the chance to shadow and receive mentoring from the actors and designers - an ideal way of gaining high-calibre work experience.

Russ Singleton, Assistant Headteacher and Director of Arts at Alfreton Grange, commented: "It was exciting for our students to be involved in the rehearsals, the lighting and sound design as well as the set design. The project proved to be a very productive and successful exercise and we are grateful to Jocelyn and David for involving us."

David Taylor drew on his own experiences of education in writing Serendipity Cottage. As a miner's son growing up on a council estate, he originally felt that higher education was not for him, despite the encouragement of his parents, his enduring fascination for literature and the fact that he was among the first cohort of pupils to take O-level drama at his school.

It wasn't until he was in his mid-20s that he went to the University of Derby and graduated in English and Drama. While continuing to develop his own writing and undertaking postgraduate research in working class writing, he has since pursued a career in educational policy and management and is now Head of Widening Participation at Kingston University.

"Both professionally and personally I have a passion for widening participation and see my play as a way to reach those who may be less engaged in learning and the idea of studying in higher education," he said.

"It was one of the reasons I had such a belief in this project and a drive to get it off the ground. One of the messages to the learners in the workshops was that you can't simply sprinkle fairy dust on your ambitions and make them come true - you have to apply yourself and work hard."

He added: "It was also rewarding to contribute to an initiative which encouraged young people to take a greater pride in their own community and to understand more about its heritage."

The final production, which was directed by Rebecca Frecknall, was described by the Derbyshire Times as "powerful, polished, enthralling and entertaining" and a "rare gem in community theatre." The project also attracted funding from Arts Council England and Kingston University.

As a proud holder of the prestigious Artsmark Gold kitemark, Alfreton Grange was also the perfect focus for the project: an environment where pupils are encouraged to reach high levels of creativity.

Case study

I was 27 when I started Uni. After an interview with Alistair Kean and a tour of the facilities I was offered a place. To be honest if I hadn't been able to study locally I don't think I would have taken the step to go to Uni - I had been offered places at Edge Hill and what is now Liverpool Hope. Studying at Derby meant I could continue to work part-time as a residential Social Worker with young people with emotional and behavioural problems - financially this was a lifeline.

My experience at Derby - At Derby studying was supported with a 'can do' attitude by the lecturers. It was Drama lecturers like Yvonne and Paul Hurt, and literature lecturers like Neil Campbell who I felt particularly valued and understood working class/non traditional students

Having not studied drama since school I wasn't sure I would be able to cope with it but the lecturers never made you think that and soon I was doing stuff I never imagined. Being a mature student felt quite normal at Derby and because so many of us were 21 and over we all fitted in and supported one another.

I suppose I started my degree at Derby thinking I just wanted to pass the first year but by the third year I was contemplating post grad study: and did go on to further study and lecturer myself!

Being at Derby was also valuable in helping develop my interest in widening participation and increasing access to higher education from those in society who are excluded or discouraged from higher education. After graduating with a 2:1 in Literature with Drama I taught on the Access to HE and later the English Degree programmes at Derby. - and hopefully I passed on the 'can do' philosophy to the many mature students I had the privilege of teaching at my time at Derby.

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