Katie O’Brien – Springwood Heath Artist’s Residency blog


Below is a blog post from Katie O’Brien who was Artist in Residence at Springwood Heath primary school, helping to create sets for a school production of Hansel & Gretel.

IMG_4019_0My week with Drake Music brought about a number of ‘firsts’ for me:

  • working with primary-aged children
  • working alongside disabled people
  • planning and leading design-based workshops

So as you can imagine I was excited, but also a little nervous to say the least!

The aim of the project was to create a performance of Hansel and Gretel in just a week, using exploratory workshops including drama, music, music technology and set design to gain and develop ideas initiated by the school children.

After the initial planning meeting I sat down to sketch and develop ideas that had been put forward by other team members and to try to merge them with my own.

Key Design Aspects

For me, there were three key aspects to the design:

  1. Safety- Anything built would need to be 110% stable and with no sharp edges or obvious risks to the children.
  2. Engagement- Children must be able to easily and enjoyably create a world for their imagined characters to exist within.
  3. Transportation- There was hope that the performance would be revived for an event at Resonate Hub in Liverpool and therefore would need to collapse.

And all this whilst maintaining a manageable timeframe and staying on budget!

Initially my aim was that the children should experience some professional scenery and prop making techniques. I thought about woodgraining tools for the woodcutters’ house, texturing with different paint techniques to make it look old and making 3D props- giant candy canes and gingerbread.

In reality much of this was not achievable, partly to do with tools and the materials needed being to risky for use with the children and also being able to achieve results fairly quickly. Many of the tasks I would like to have done required more planning and experimentation than I had time for and were nice ‘extras’ to embellish the set, rather than provide basic scenery.

Simplicity was crucial if we were to achieve anything at all.

I felt that particular children would have relished more intense and intricate workshops or the challenge of designing the set themselves: Sahara was so intricate with her drawings, right down to detailed depiction of textures and layering of colour.

Another classmate, Heidi was instantly able to see how one object would become something else. On seeing a dilapidated old table with a cardboard tube on top, she remarked ‘Oh, is that going to be the oven?!’


I settled on the idea of basing everything around a wardrobe rail that I already had at home. It was light yet stable and movable. Around this, I would build the two houses.

The Woodcutter’s Cottage

The Woodcutter’s Cottage would be made using a collage technique that I had developed using cardboard, paper and wool to create knots and line characteristics of wood.

Ruth, the music workshop practitioner, suggested that the forest be created using a soundscape, as well as a subtitled backdrop of forest imagery. There had been talk of using lighting gobos (stencils) and creepy shadowing, but unfortunately time did not allow.

Animals of the forest would contribute to the soundscape, wearing masks they had made. There would be a grand reveal of the gingerbread house as it magically appeared before the audience.

This was to be made on ‘strips’ of gingerbread, decorated with sweets created by the children. Gingerbread men and lollipops made from sponge were added just after the big reveal.

The Witch’s House

For the Witch’s house, the children made a wooden cage look metal and turned a table and a cardboard tube into an stove complete with opening door.

A dressing up box was provided so that the children could explore character identity and small costume props…I never thought the Poundshop glasses would be so popular!

The Artistic Process – what worked?

It was apparent to me from the beginning that I would have to be quite prescriptive with the design of the set itself…even for me alone to make and decorate a set within a week was a challenge, never mind the consideration of engaging 20 children at the same time!

Instead I called on their imagination of the details. For example, I began the Gingerbread House workshop with us all sitting down and choosing sweets off the shelf in an imaginary sweet shop. We then talked about the sweets and tried to make them out of all the bits and pieces that had been provided.

I could write pages and pages about all the ideas that flew about in those initial emails. My colleagues were equally enthusiastic about the aesthetic of the piece, so much was discussed, evaluated, dismissed and reevaluated again…Unusually for me, I found myself stopping ideas at various stages within the week,regardless of whether they were my own or that of others.

This was a big achievement as on previous occasions I have put myself under massive pressure, ever the perfectionist and struggled to achieve a finish I was happy with.

I was also conscious that if things were to be made within the week, then as much as possible should be made by the children. I had to bear this in mind when planning my workshops, at what stage would I need to incorporate the children into the process for each scenic piece, how quickly would they take to the workshop, was it achievable?

Unfortunately, ideas such as incorporating Makey Makeys into the set had to be abandoned due to lack of time as did wearing the masks made by the children as they were too uncomfortable and restricting. They ended up decorating the narrator’s podium!

Feeling inexperienced in many areas in which this project called upon a certain level of knowledge was daunting. I found myself a little in the deep end, with a circle of concerns that kept coming back around each time the previous one seemed to be solved.

By the end of the first day, I was worried about how the children had/hadn’t engaged with the activities. Some, I felt, didn’t enjoy the task they had been given or perhaps would have benefitted more from a different task.

Others I found difficult to engage in any activity at all. I was concerned that my delivery of each task was not child friendly, my use of vocabulary- some words they didn’t understand, but then I was surprised at terms they did understand.

I also worried about how the children with the more physical barriers could be restricted with tasks such as the mask-making as pressure needs to be applied.

Some of the wheelchair users were unable to come into the designated work space (soft play area) due to manual handling restraints and I worried that they may have felt isolated from engaging in the task.

Fortunately some of this was resolved later on in the week as I was able to take aside Amy and Tanika for a quick closed session. Amy had been off school due to a strike and had missed the final stages of the mask making which she had really excelled at.

At the same time, Tanika painted the Witch’s treasure box: her own mini project.

I felt she had been restricted by her chair and unable to participate in the art sessions as fully as she would have liked to. By taking the time to do this, I felt she would be a little more satisfied with her contribution to the set design element of the project.

On reflection, a lot of the issues I experienced were something that I could never have predicted until the moment, and next time would be more likely to go with the flow.

Maybe a bit of training/guidance of how to plan workshops to the engage and encourage the children would have been of benefit to me being fairly new to it all, but other than that just time with the children, getting to know them better and knowing what they enjoy could have improved the connection between us.

Mask-Making success

Of all the workshops, the mask making – which was a main source of worry! – went fantastically and was probably the most successful workshop in terms of what was achieved in the time.

The large number of support staff allocated to this group meant that each child had almost one to one help, the materials were really accessible regardless of ability and exciting and different to use.

A group of four boys and just one girl, we ended up with two wolves, a tiger, a fox and one little rabbit! But apparently one of the wolves was a nice one, so we were assured the rabbit would be okay!!

The animal mask making was the most process-led workshop – step by step – as opposed to the others which were more about letting the children experiment and explore with colours and materials.

Some children just took to the experimentation aspect of some of the workshops, such as Evie and Nathan together reeling off thousands of sweets and how they could be made using the materials we had at our disposal.

Other children such as Cam did not thrive so much in this type of workshop, instead he shone in the scenic workshops when we all helped to paint the oven. He was much more comfortable with a process to follow.

But in the end, I realised that regardless of many things, they were learning and so was I.

I was learning from them and they were learning from me, all benefiting from each other’s contribution- This is truly what making theatre is about.

My fellow practitioners and the school staff were brilliant at discouraging my anxieties and propping me up a bit, particularly Sally and Debbie who run the school’s art club….their advice was invaluable in terms of supporting and encouraging  me to get the best out of the children.

I learned that some children take a little longer to nurture and engage than others, sometimes the working environment just needs a tweak or they need a little one to one attention in order to get a result.

Hopefully in the future I will be able to pick this up as I go. There are of course other children that are continuously enthusiastic, desperate to help in anyway…even stay in from break time! I felt honored!

At the end of the week the children were begging ‘Please Katie, are we doing Art today?’ followed by the a resonating ‘Arrwwww why not?’ ‘Will you be back next week?’

The realisation that this whole week had been a very special week for them all, and not just the performance at the end. It would be something that they would be unlikely to forget in a hurry. I felt that the team and the school together collaborated brilliantly in order to make the project a success for all involved. I just hope everyone else got as much out of it as I did!

Katie O’Brien

Theatre Designer and Maker


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