The mass effects of the global pandemic have not ceased to impact since it began, and a particular group of people still feeling the strain of evident changes are those working in schools. The Kind Refuser is a play about a pupil who suddenly decides that they won't complete any task set in class, which throws things into disarray.
Dominic Hedges is the director of the show, and the founder of the Thumbs Down Theatre company, which strives to facilitate for young people in the arts. He has spoken about this production and more below.
What is The Kind Refuser about?
The show tells the story of five young people returning to school after a round of COVID lockdown restrictions. These young people have all been removed from the mainstream school because of behaviour and are in ‘isolation’. Suddenly one of the children responds to every request with the phrase, “I would prefer not to”, and it drives the new teaching assistant to distraction. The story is based on Bartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville.
How important is sharing the experiences of those in the education sector, and their pupils, in this post-lockdown world?
[It is] incredibly important because it’s much easier to pretend everything is back to normal. Other than controversies around exam results, the narrative is largely that now children are back in school, they’re OK. What isn’t addressed is the emotional fallout in pupils going from one extreme to another and the teachers who have to pick up the pieces.
How does having a cast including 5 children help to describe this narrative, and make the piece unique?
We haven’t used a script. Instead, we sketched out the character interactions and plot beats that we want to achieve in each scene. Then the young people improvised around that sketch and we go over it again and again until we have something we like. It means they have the freedom to put in their own stories and vernacular without the restrictions of crafting the story.
How have you researched for this production?
Research for the show came more in the way of experience. Half of the production team, including myself, worked as a TA in schools during lockdown, and we saw first hand the frustration malaise in schools. Not knowing day to day what the rules were, misinformation, changes in policy, bubbles, exemptions: it became a bit crazy. We tried to consolidate all of this, without getting in the way of what the young people were bringing.
How can teachers and students be supported through these adjustments that continue through the pandemic?
I think this is a question way above me! But my first thought would be for all levels of school management, including Ofsted, to acknowledge that we really are not that far out of lockdown, and to consider that most of us are still picking up the pieces of what came before.
What is the ethos of Thumbs Down Theatre, and how does the show reflect this?
Thumbs Down is dedicated to character driven stories, collaborating with young people. We have a list of tenets we (try!) to stick by and these include; children won’t recite manifestos, children won’t narrate to the audience. We want to tap into the performing power of children and aim to not only put young people, but young characters on stage.
What type of child were you at school and do any of the characters relate to your own experiences?
Not an angel, put it that way! I think there’s a bit of me in each of the characters. However, the truth is this academic cycle has experienced something none us ever have, and hopefully never will again. I do know that not being able to see my friends at that age for the best part of a year would have been unthinkably tough.
What message do you hope the show promotes to audiences?
More than anything I hope audiences come away wanting to see more young people on stage. The show aims to shed light on the difficulties of young people post-lockdown, but it will never encapsulate the complexities of their situation fully. This play is a showcase of five incredible young actors telling a story only they can tell.
Huge thanks to Dominic for sharing more on your fantastic show. As a TA myself when not reviewing, it's especially exciting for me to see the representation explored in this piece. All the best for the run!
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Additional thanks to Matthew Parker for coordinating this interview.