Hansy Shore on UCLU Musical Theatre’s amazing volunteering project – and the benefits to everyone involved
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Big One, it’s a UCLU Musical Theatre volunteering project, started 4 years ago by enterprising former UCL student Sam Lansdale. The project aims to bring the Arts to children who might not ordinarily have the opportunity. Each Wednesday afternoon a production team of UCL students heads east, with the aim of putting together a full length, all-singing, all-dancing musical starring high school students. And this year, I took on the role of co-director in a new team of seven UCL volunteers.
Our arrival brought with it a change in partner school from the previous years, to Raine’s Foundation in Bethnal Green, already bringing the challenge of adapting the project to a new environment. With ‘Fame’ as our somewhat ambitious offering we descended on the school, unsure of what to expect. The auditions left us excited at the array of hidden talent we’d unearthed, but, looking back as I write this, the improvement from those first nervous auditions to the final performance is staggering. That, in my opinion, is what makes this project different from others and so special: the relationship you develop with the children and the opportunity to see them develop both as performers and as people.
We had been visiting the school for 2 hours a week since September, on top of regular weekend rehearsal at UCL and in that time we really got to know their personalities. We learnt to tell when something is wrong, when the time for severity is and when the time is to let things go. I’ve seen a change in the children and their attitude towards both us and the project as the time went on. I think it’s only now that my fellow volunteers and I are realising just how much we will miss them now that the show is over and gone.
Before embarking on this project, I, and the majority of the team, had worked with children before; like many uni students our CVs were littered with ‘student helper’ and ‘teaching assistant’ – but none of these experiences could fully prepare us for either the challenges or the highs that come with being involved in the Big One. You’re not simply observing or assisting; you’re fully responsible and tasked with keeping the focus and attention of teenagers who sometimes, despite auditioning, clearly would much rather be in front of the telly with a packet of crisps!
Sometimes I really don’t blame them: the energy expended by both student and teacher in making this project happen is phenomenal, and naturally there are moments when you just want to throw in the towel. Yet one of the greatest joys of working with children is their capacity to surprise: to suddenly pull a performance out the bag that has us cheering with tears in our eyes!
Yes, it was stressful and yes, it kept us on our toes, but I didn’t for one second doubt that it would all be worth it in the end. So, on the 10th and 11th of February 2015, between the rushing and the panic, the person you saw sobbing with pride – that was probably me.