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This week, Blackpool Grand Theatre was host to another initiative aimed at helping young people to connect with their latent creativity. Skool of Street was conceived by dance practitioner Sam Bell to offer young people the chance of taking part in a range of free urban arts workshops during the summer, with the aim of producing a celebratory performance onstage. The project was supported by LeftCoast, one of 21 Creative People and Places programmes formed by Arts Council England whose aim is to get more people involved in arts activities.

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Arriving at the theatre, it was buzzing with young people; selling programmes, greeting guests and taking their place as audience members. The deliciously boisterous energy was in contrast to the usual quiet solemnity that can sometimes pervade old buildings such as The Grand and any project that gets young people taking ownership of arts establishments, gets my vote.

The audience’s anticipation grew as the lights went down, a screen descended and a short video which contextualised the project was played. Professionally put together by Job Done Media, sometimes films played prior to young people’s performances can have an apologetic tone, however, this was definitely focussed on celebrating the hard work, contributions and passion of everybody involved – it set the tone for the whole evening.

The live action started when over 50 young people took to the stage to perform a set involving individual and whole-group dance pieces, spoken word moments and even a bit of beat-boxing. The performers’ collective bouncing conveyed a heart-beat rhythm which beautifully connected the audience to their energy and enthusiasm for urban arts as a means of self-expression.

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MC Jay Madden was the main host for the evening, enthusiastically introducing acts, stage managing props and technical equipment and even treating the audience to a bit of Twerking! His co-host Sam Bell was a quieter onstage presence, however we got to experience her real expertise in the second half when she and Aishley Docherty (who provided dance and drama support to the project via her organisation Urban Arts Network) partnered up in a beautifully choreographed and executed dance piece to a Lady Gaga track.

The programme included a solo set by a girl aged just 11-years old, a mum’s Pink Panther inspired dance accompanied by a young saxophonist, several dance sets involving both the whole company from Skool of Street plus some smaller numbers from Sam’s day-job dance crew FY Wingz, plus a stylised drama piece about how a lonely social outcast could find friendship and expressiveness through street arts.

The night was also peppered with offerings from more experienced performers including FreeFly Crew (those who saw Breakin’ Convention at The Grand earlier this year will remember them as the Ninja set). The climax of the evening came however, from a duet which beautifully demonstrated how two different art-forms could genuinely work together to create a high quality performance, between a young girl singing Emeli Sande’s Read All About It interspersed with spoken word recognition of the evening’s contributions by MC Jay Madden.

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Throughout the performance, we as the audience were thanked for our contributions by way of the £5 ticket cost and were promised that this was a pilot for great future possibilities in the same vein. Julia Turpin, Executive Director at LeftCoast, said of the performance “Skool of Street realised an ambitious project on the stage of The Grand tonight. I was really impressed with the hard work, energy and commitment of everyone involved. Congratulations to the company – I look forward to seeing them build on this success.”

As we left the theatre, squeezing our way through the excited parent and peer groupies waiting to collect their young performers, spirits and congratulations were high and rightly so. There are no doubt lessons to be learnt and things to do differently next time and that will quite possibly be the next conversation between practitioners and funding partners. However, it would genuinely be a shame if last night were a one-off in the Blackpool community and so if you missed out this time, I urge you to watch this space for future Skool of Street offerings…

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Photography courtesy of CJGriffiths Photography

Reclaim Blackpool - Mapping Sexual Harrasment
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    Melanie Whitehead is the Creative Director of The Old Electric, Blackpool's newest theatre. She previously worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre.

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