by Holly Bateman, Lead Practitioner for the Teaching Differently Project.

(The Open Theatre Team with teachers at Uffculme School in Birmingham)


Open Theatre practitioners are lucky.

We get to go into schools and be creative with no set curriculum, no external targets and no agenda beyond connecting and engaging with the young people in front of us.  Our work has felt at times, a stark contrast to what teachers do. Whilst teachers are always seeking to make the most accessible and engaging lessons they are confined within a curriculum that dictates the outcome of their lessons. 

But what if the freedom and creativity of Open Theatre sessions could be combined with the externally set curriculum that our SEN partner schools work with? What if teachers were trained and supported to experiment with creativity and connection in all of their lessons, not just Open Theatre? What might happen in classrooms if teachers thought more like Open Theatre practitioners?

These are the questions we seek to answer in the three year Teaching Differently project. 

We know that our sessions have a huge impact on the students we work with in SEN settings; the schools we work with all report high levels of engagement, creativity and joy when we work with their pupils. The Paul Hamlyn Foundation seeks to support social change to allow young people to reach their full potential – they were natural partners for us to work with to explore how we might maximise the impact we have in schools. They were as excited as we are to investigate how our practice can influence teaching methodology, and so the 3 years of funding was allocated, and Teaching Differently could begin in earnest.

The Uffculme Schools in Birmingham were eager to participate; having had Open Theatre delivery for over 6 years, the staff know how much engagement the practice can develop. Eight staff across the the Primary and Secondary sites volunteered to put on hats, grab a scarf and get involved in the training programme… but our initial challenge was how to articulate our non-verbal theatre practice. How do you explain a feeling? How do you describe something as ephemeral as a moment of creativity? What really IS scarf dancing all about? Richard and the practitioners got together and have found our key vocabulary…


Connection is at the root of what we do. Humans constantly seek connection; it brings joy and comfort and can bring forth incredibly strong emotional bonds. Go and stare into someone’s eyes, just for 30 seconds, and see how INTENSE the experience is. Connection is a feeling of being together in a moment, in a feeling, between two or a whole group of people, and it’s what we practitioners constantly seek with our participants. It’s how we begin to form trusting relationships with people, and allows us to explore activities together.


You have no idea what I am capable of. It’s not a threat, promise. I have no idea what you are capable of, either, and it’s incredibly exciting to explore those possibilities! We would never prevent a young person from trying something because they “can’t” do it, neither would we expect someone to repeat something because they have done so in the past. We meet each person where they are today, in this moment, and craft our activities to be as open and full of possibilities as possible.


The people Open Theatre work with are endlessly creative, providing we allow them the space to show us their skills! We always allow people in the room to be themselves and respond in their own way to our prompts, there is no correct way of engaging. You’re also, always, allowed to say “NO”. Allowing people to disengage gives them the opportunity to choose to engage when they are ready.


We value the unique, exciting ways in which young people engage with us. We celebrate the individualised responses, rather than aiming for uniformity. We use creativity to reach our other values.