Well that didn’t go too badly!
In early 2007, I was offered the position of Group Chair at 1st Calow Scout Group, a year before the group was due to celebrate 75th Anniversary. To mark this, my first objective was to devise a project involving all sections of the group; Beavers, Cubs, Scouts and Explorers, plus leaders, parents/carers and the wider community. Inspired by memories of an experience I had enjoyed as a Cub in the early 1970’s, I suggested the group should stage a Gang Show. My aim for Calow was to do things on a much grander scale, culminating in performances at Chesterfield’s Pomegranate Theatre.
As it would interfere with their regular programme, convincing the Scouting leadership of the group was not easy. Very few (if any) of the group had ever appeared on a stage before, we would need material to perform, costumes, scenery, props, an audience...and most of all money. I claimed that nothing was insurmountable and by the end of the summer break, many of these issues would be resolved. I applied to the National Lottery and secured funding of almost £7500, Derbyshire County Council also granted us the money to buy a projector for use in rehearsals, the shows and later by the group and other local community organisations. With some tremendous family support a skeleton script was written, mixing traditional Gang Show sketches with a narrative tracking 1st Calow (and the Scout movement’s) history. Free weekly rehearsal space was secured at Calow Community Centre and I wrote to more than 100 celebrities (many ex-Scouts) for words of encouragement. The theatre was booked for the end of January 2008.
By September, I was ready to present what had been achieved so far to the young people themselves. With a degree of reticence, they said they were prepared to give it a go.
Initial rehearsals were a disaster...the Beavers weren’t interested, the Cubs impatient, the Scouts embarrassed to read in front of their peers and there was no way the Explorers were going to dance. After two weeks the Scout Leaders began to question the future of the project.
Week three and the uncle of two group members, himself an ex-Calow Scout, wandered into rehearsal with an acoustic guitar. In few short minutes he had the entire Cub pack round him singing a camp fire song. The mood changed immediately...along with belief in the project.
By week four, I had received the first celebrity reply, and as became the norm from then on, opened rehearsals with a message of good will and support. Each week the cast became increasingly excited to find out just who was supporting their efforts.
Word (and enthusiasm) spread amongst the parents/carers and highly skilled volunteers came forward...a seamstress, a carpenter, someone with experience of previous theatrical performances...others who wanted to help build scenery, source props or help with rehearsals. On top of this, I was more than lucky ot have the help and full backing of a remarkably supportive family!
By Christmas the cast were becoming more confident, and the parents/carers more involved. The day after Boxing Day almost 20 turned up to start painting the scenery, in a barn loaned to us by a local egg farmer who’s previously stage-shy son was due to play the key role of Narrator/MC for the shows.
Invitations were sent out to local dignitaries and MPs, a member of the Upper House and other special guests. We traced survivors from the group’s first meeting in 1933 and, as one of them was being portrayed by a current Scout in the show, it was deemed right that he should be guest of honour on opening night.
As the show dates approached, rehearsals were conducted almost at fever pitch. The local media covered the project, gifting some invaluable exposure.
On the eve of opening night we had the full dress rehearsal, and the reality of such an ambitious (and risky) project hit home. As project leader I was presumed the right person to stage manage the show. The sound of large props being manhandled across the stage, the time take to dress the scenes...and missing stage directions slowed down the entire performance by more than an hour. This was a school night and many parents/carers quite rightly took their exhausted children home before the finale. Tempers were stretched, and it look as highly likely that an embarrassing two nights would follow. At the very lowest point of the post-show briefing, the Pomegranate’s resident Stage Manager, who had witnessed events from the stalls appeared. “Well that didn’t go too badly” were six of the most welcome words I’d ever heard. He advised us to come in to the theatre the following morning, make a few small changes to scenery, props and directions and pointed out that the cast had actually done everything right.
The following two nights went better than any of us could have dreamed. The cast were absolutely magnificent, the backstage team of parents/carers and leaders were superb, and by the end of it was almost impossible to get everyone off stage. The press review and audience feedback was exceptional.
To honour the support of the community in Calow, the show was staged free of charge (in a truncated fashion) twice in one day a few months later. The profile of the group had been lifted, and efforts were then put into creating a 75th Anniversary memorial garden to the rear of St Peter’s Church Hall. Radio 4 visited the group to record a portion for a programme about sitting Lords visiting their origins (Baroness Richardson of Calow). A weekend long 75th Anniversary exhibition of memorabilia, images, multimedia presentations was hosted at the church hall to mark the event, drawing ex Calow scouts (even from 1933), dignitaries and visitors from as far away as Canada, and a special church service was held.
Ten years on, and I’m still immensely proud of what those young people and families achieved.
Whether their participation in the project had any bearing on their future lives is purely conjecture, but I certainly know it boosted their confidence and self-belief in what is possible. A number of cast-members went on to study performing or creative arts subjects at university...music, film making and set design, some (including one incredibly shy Scout at the time) have gone onto serve in the military. The group also attracted more members and leaders...and some of the families involved forged new and still ongoing friendships.
It really didn’t go too badly!