Suzie West, Talent Development Lead at Barbican Theatre Plymouth, reflects on a year of co-creating in youth training.


New space for possibility

During my 10 years as a secondary dance teacher and freelance practitioner, I became increasingly curious about the creative learning experience and the function of creativity in shaping a person. Since taking on a position at Barbican Theatre in 2017, the organisation has started to explore the co-creative process in participatory settings. The team here are fundamentally committed to co-creation and we want to stretch the process to its most full potential. The team talks extensively about building Plymouth’s creative voice and giving it a platform. In the last five years so much has changed for the young people we support and the creatives they collaborate with at Barbican Theatre, Plymouth. As we go into 2022, it feels important to take a step back and not only talk about the successes but also the function and evolution of co-creation for us.

In 2020, Arts Council England positioned their ambitions for creativity firmly in the local community with their ten year Let’s Create strategy. The term ‘democratic creativity’ is important to me as a community arts practitioner and I support Grimsey’s argument (2020) that places public agency at the heart of this country’s cultural rebuild after the effects of Covid-19.

The pandemic has changed everything in the sense that people have had to adapt to a life threatening crisis, change their behaviours quickly and a new normal is emerging. To achieve this better life, it will be incumbent on government to blow away some of the restrictions of the past and put in place devolved powers that enable local communities to act (Grimsey, 2020, 5).

There is a responsibility for cultural organisations, and not just high street businesses, to look again at agency and how they facilitate this. Our new CEO, who started in 2020, is similarly passionate about non-siloed creative training that teaches collaboration, and open questions. As an organisation we want to find a wider range of tools that allow people to find their own unique voice and platform for their creative expression. This article talks about the learning journey we have been on with co-creation. So, let’s start at the beginning.

Whilst completing my MA in Creative Education, I soon found a kindred spirit in Professor Anna Craft. Her studies featured heavily in my three years of action research and the following three years of application at Barbican Theatre. Professor Craft’s ‘teaching for creativity’ theories demand a learning environment that encourages and celebrates questioning and imagination in all children. Furthermore, Craft enlists questioning to foster ‘possibility thinking’. Described by Craft (2002) as a shift in thought process from ‘What is this?’ to ‘What can I/we do with this?’.

I had been applying this powerful tool in our community engagement and classes through a fusion dance programme I was leading across Plymouth. Shifting the narrative from ‘What do you know?’ and ‘What do we do here?’ to ‘What could we do here?’ and ‘What can we imagine?’. The arrival of lockdowns in 2020 coincided with our new CEO starting and both turned Barbican Theatre’s training programme upside down but in a good way.

During the first lockdown, our contracted practitioners embedded the principles of possibility thinking within our newly founded Digital Rebels programme. We embraced the challenge: we have computers, we have the internet, we have specialists to help you ‘What can we do with this? Where can we go?’ The outcome was this: Digital ReBels project 2020 ‘The Butterfly Effect’

We were able to put the co-creative process into an online space. With so much unknown, there were no time constraints, no outcomes on the horizon, no traditional black box with the traditional rules and roles of responsibility. The online ‘other world’ gave us a new possibility to work and think in. Craft’s theories were reflected in our lockdown projects: ‘involved practitioners offering children emotionally enabling opportunities driven by a provocation, involving practitioners valuing highly children’s agency’ (Craft, 2002, 26). Craft’s co-participation places value on making space for shared outcomes with the experiences of the learner and teacher including: posing questions, risk taking, being imaginative, self determination and intentionality. This was a theory we could embed in our organisation, as it helped us to prioritise the input of learner agency and shared outcomes in order to develop collective ideas.

Key ingredients for co-creation in the real world

It was incredibly important to Barbican Theatre that we supported our community face to face as soon as we could. Returning to classes tripled our organisation costs, as our CEO wrote in a white paper for MP Luke Pollard:

We’ve gone from running 5 classes a week to 18, all of which can move between in person, social distanced, blended and online so that we can continue to support creative growth. Each class combines 2 practitioners from different creative backgrounds, who are trained in collaborative co-creative techniques… Creating cross art form work enables more unique voices, and future employment opportunities because ReBels are given permission to flex their muscles and discover what their voices could be, and what they want them to be… They feel heard, represented and consulted and as a consequence are feeling increasingly confident to move between different types of creative explorations.

ReBels Rhythm & Articulation members entertain Christmas shoppers on Plymouth Piazza 10 December 2020. Image credit: Gemma Ward

We used the re-start of our classes to re-launch them entirely under the ReBels banner. A new name to support the shift in our face-to-face classes- instilling co-creation as a fundamental core. Alongside my colleagues I worked to interrogate whether co-creative practice functioned in reality, in regular classes and not just online. With our care and support, could the 15 classes a week embed co-creative practice? The advantages of starting something new in the pandemic was that people were open to change and difference. The rules in the space shifted and their relationship with the creative facilitators shifted too, in the same way they had at school more agency, more repressibility, choice and adaptability. These new skills were celebrated in the ReBels programme and some amazing learning took place for everyone, making interdisciplinary work, about self-selected topics with an empowered voice.

Plymouth In Motion short film featuring ReBels Dancers collaborating with professional dancers Kadus Smith and Daisy Harrison and members of Plymouth Parkour & Prime Skatepark (film by Seb Pinkham)

The unexpected combinations of artforms in each class piqued curiosity. Each class had a starting question that enabled our ReBels to be part of this possibility thinking framework: ‘What happens when you combine stage combat with Shakespeare?’ or ‘What happens when you can learn Afro Beat and Contemporary dance in the same class?’ This instilled four key features to making co-creation function in the reality of Covid-safe classes: Playfulness, Possibilities, Pluralities and Participation.

The ‘4Ps: Playfulness, Possibilities, Pluralities and Participation’ are coined by Craft in her future-thinking 2001 study on creativity in education. In the book, Craft describes creativity in education as something that must be participated in with open ended, risk enhanced innovation (possibility), multiple viewpoints or roles (plurality) and a loose framework that encourages question posing, immersion and self-determination (playfulness). The continuous thread between the individual, communal and collaborative demonstrates that individual agency and dialogue with others occur simultaneously. This, after all, is what community creative practitioners and teachers across the world have always known and always wanted for their participants: a chance for self-growth and a chance to feel valued in a group. The golden ticket to successful creative projects.

ReBels What’s Your Style? graffiti photo project in Stonehouse March 2021. Image credit: Joshua Marsh

Our new and shiny ReBels programme wasn’t instantly the golden ticket and there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ equation. What we found post pandemic was that as well as having screen fatigue, some of the learners have ‘agency’ fatigue too. In some cases, the young people have lost two years of development in a social situation. They aren’t always emotionally and socially ready for co-creation in its most open-ended form. Our young people don’t always want to make all of the decisions, all of the time. This isn’t lethargy. This is fatigue. This isn’t ‘front’. This is a lack of confidence. Some of them just want to be in a social space, learning from each other and at times, just being told what to do. No problem. We talked a lot to our practitioners about the ‘sliding scale of co-creation’ and asked them to consider their classes’ capacity for co-creative agency vs collective responsibility. The 4Ps can exist across a term of experiences, balanced with instruction and tasters by specialists (some of whom are still the ReBels, instructing us how to use Ableton, to use a different language or costume a character). The framework can be set, sometimes even the outcome is set, but there is still room for the 4Ps and room for the ReBels’ creative voices.

‘Progressive organisations, like Barbican Theatre, lead the way with their innovative approach and dedication to diversifying the creative sector.’ Matt Griffiths, Youth Music CEO    

We have been able to use the more open end of the scale/co-creation model with those ready to have agency and this tends to be those who have actively sought us out during lockdown. This has been particularly popular with solo musicians, recent graduates or third year students ready for their own creative journey. We’ve got buskers, record labels designers, DJs, MCs, community dance artists, podcasters, spoken word artists, comedians, projection mappers, dance film makers, drag artists and parkour choreographers. We have young people who don’t want a traditional class any longer, or a traditional didactic project. They clearly recognise when Barbican Theatre, a collaborating partner or guest company wish to involve them in their process but do not value their voice. They are becoming increasingly confident in electing creative experiences that suit them and are now informing us about what classes and experiences they want next.

ReBels Music participant Jacob Elder DJing with professional MC, Maddy V, at Prime Skatepark Takeover June 2021. Image credit: Dom Moore

Risky and safe spaces

Our ReBels also talk about the fear, nervousness, anxiety and challenge they feel internally. Bravery is less common than it used to be in our creative space. We wondered if that is because it’s being used so much elsewhere? There is so much unknown out there. Is it also about the individual’s concept of risk and where they feel safe? Is our risky playful space now their only safe space? Can it be both?

Risk is an important part of the co-creative journey as it glues a group together and stretches their perceptions of their own ability in “making something” they are “making a new version of themselves”. It is important for Barbican Theatre to gently stretch and nurture curiosity and a healthy appetite for challenge. There can be a healthy balance of the co-created space being safe and risky. Wenger-Traynor (2014) explains that if activities provide a degree of agency, then the participant can decide if they wish to align themselves with the values set out. If the participant’s values are reflected in the activity, and their role in the group, the individual attaches themselves to the activity or outcome positively.

So, in the autumn term the teams initiated discussions much sooner, giving each person a chance to talk about what is important to them and to experience various roles. Transparency is provided by giving time and space for the facilitators and participants to understand what everyone’s values are, so that an equilibrium between risk and value can be made early on and regularly stretched, then reflected on. Wenger (2014) recommends pliable boundaries so that the “members can push the edge of the domain with confidence when they are not at risk” (Wenger, 2014, 44). For some of our groups, this risk is managed carefully with small stepping stones, rather than big leaps: options to vote on, small collective decisions and specialist interaction they can expand or embody. Slowly, the facilitators can encourage Possibility Thinking to shift their perceptions of the art form and their ability. To bring them to the edges.

ReBels Music members in a session with ReBels Music Practitioner Jon Fazal March 2022. Image credit: Zoe Bloss

In the spring term the ReBels have larger ambitions for their weekly sessions. The practitioners in the room are encouraged to meddle a little more so that the edges can be stretched beyond the ReBels’ skill set. As well as facilitating and supporting the group, the practitioners are teaching new skills, stretching the ReBels’ technique and imaginations. The practitioners are finding more confidence in swinging the sliding scale back over to tighter frameworks and co-created content or co-directed content when needed to help classes reach their ambitions and achieve a ‘big production’ they feel part of and proud of. Although it seems contradictory, there is value in practitioners using their specialist experience and enabling the collective ambition to be obtained. A high quality process and product are both important.

A year in…

In 2022 our amazing practitioners are building the 4Ps into some personalised ways to suit the journey of their young people. It is a longer process, with time allocated every session to talking, building dialogue and framing or reframing their ideas. Time is also dedicated this term to building the value of others in relation to the individual which has really helped them understand their greater value in the group.

‘There are more and more opportunities which I find thrilling and very positive.’ Julius Taresch (ReBels member) Read a full testimonial from Julius here 

‘I’ve had amazing opportunities & met some really cool people who have helped support me.’ Aya El Morshdy (ReBels member)    

ReBels ‘Dancing On Cars’ short film project March 2021 — co-choreographed by ReBels and their practitioners Lauren Pomfret and Daisy Harrison (film produced by Seb Pinkham)

In our first full year of co-creative training and interdisciplinary classes, we are only just getting to grips with the reality of co-creation, day in day out. The experience of the individual and the group is complex and takes time and careful observation. It’s 4Ps have put us all through the ringer: we have to be playful/adaptable, plural/see all sides, possibility modelling/ challenging and participatory/braver with our democratic process. Co-creative processes enable participants to negotiate their identity but this also means that there is the potential for a variety of negotiations. The possibility of so many values and expectations can mean that activity will not satisfy every person’s constitution of identity. It’s a messy way of making sure everyone’s voice is heard, but it’s also the most impactful.

I am passionate about creative learning and the potential it has. I also love the messy, entangled creative process and how this has shaped me as a person. It’s helped me to be ok with the unknown, resilient and adaptable. It’s helped me to adapt from being a secondary dance teacher to the role I am in now. It’s helped me to manage life’s stresses and emotional toils that we all go through as humans. Co-creation defines the Barbican Theatre rather well too. It isn’t really shiny, golden perfection, it’s more like a well loved tapestry perfectly complex from the front: a big messy entangled bunch of threads when you look at the back. It’s a bit risky, it’s messy.

This article has also been written by the team edited, re-ordered, quotes thrown in, perspectives drawn on. It has helped us to reflect on us as an organisation and the shifts we have made because of possibility thinking and co-creative practice. It has reiterated to us the importance of risk, resilience and having confidence with the unknown. Such experiences are vital for our radical young ReBels in this world and for organisations alike. So Barbican Theatre are learning how to be transparent about the value of the ReBels’ voice and the value of risk in our space.


Info about ReBels Talent Development weekly training sessions

Craft, A. et al (eds) (2011) Creativity in Education London: A&C Black

Craft, A. (2002) Creativity and Early Years Education: A lifewide foundation Continuum Studies in Lifelong Learning London: Continuum

Grimsey Review: Covid-19 Supplement For Town Centres

Wenger-Traynor et al (eds) (2014) Learning in Landscapes of Practice: Boundaries, identity, and knowledgeability in practice-based learning London: Routledge