Toy show has life-long impact on Cork children

The Late Late Toy Show is a once a year event for many - but it is leaving a lasting life-long impact on the lives of some Cork children, as JENNIFER HORGAN finds out
Toy show has life-long impact on Cork children

Students with some of the set design creations made during workshops at Graffiti Theatre, which are funded by the Toy Show Appeal. Picture: Clare Keogh

FOR most of us, The Late Late Toy Show is a once-a-year highlight, a single night of matching pyjamas and family fun heralding the start of the silly season.

In truth, the television show has a far bigger reach, enhancing the lives of young people for months, even years, long after the fun-filled set has been cleared away.

The ‘We Create the World’ programme currently underway at Graffiti Theatre, Cork, is just one example of the show’s impact.

Creative Learning Director Julie O’Leary, who sees the impact first-hand, is thrilled with the Toy Show funding and chats passionately about the work they’re doing in Blackpool.

“I’ve had people involved in our projects, teachers, and parents, who have donated to the Toy Show appeal and who are really excited to see where the money goes. They also get to appreciate the longevity of their donations.

“We are only half-way through our project and the funding is coming from the 2021 show. Our project involves deep engagement with young people over a long stretch of time, which makes it even more impactful.”

Graffiti’s latest project is truly remarkable. The company, supported by Arts Council Ireland, are working with children from ten DEIS schools in the city, guiding them towards creating their own production in May with many inspiring, multi-faceted steps along the way.

One of the pupils from ten schools in Cork city who are taking part in projects with Graffiti Theatre in Blackpool, funded by the Toy Show Appeal. Picture: Clare Keogh
One of the pupils from ten schools in Cork city who are taking part in projects with Graffiti Theatre in Blackpool, funded by the Toy Show Appeal. Picture: Clare Keogh

Call-Out to Schools

“Once we got the funding,” explains Julie, “we did a call-out. We wanted to work with DEIS schools because they make up most schools in our theatre’s vicinity. We got a huge response from teachers and their classes.

“The applications were fantastic because the children were consulted, and their voices were central. 

"It was such a difficult decision and if we had more funding we would have loved to work with ten more schools.”

In terms of the longevity of the project, Julie emphasises the importance of relationships building throughout their work. She hopes the schools will continue to visit the theatre space and relishes the opportunity to open the world of theatre up to young people. Throughout our conversation, she comes back to the central focus on the children.

“Our application to the Toy Show was successful the previous year too and we did a lovely project called ‘Be Your Own Hero’ with Cork playwright John McCarthy. One piece of feedback we received from the children involved was that they would have enjoyed performing themselves, so this year, we’re making that happen.”

Students looking at the set designs made by pupils taking part in workshops at Graffiti Theatre
Students looking at the set designs made by pupils taking part in workshops at Graffiti Theatre

Project Details

As Julie explains, the project began with each school receiving an audio drama written by Finegan Kruckemeyer called ‘You and Me and the Space Between’. It tells the story of an island community that must row their island to meet a new land to survive. The theatre company felt the subject matter was relevant to Cork schools.

“Many of these schools have welcomed Ukrainian children into their classrooms recently. 

"We wanted to explore themes of safety, threat, and new beginnings. It’s often easier to do this at a distance and theatre provides children with a perfect opportunity to do so.”

In the next part of the process, children watched videos about how to make a set with Deirdre Dwyer. Set designers visited the schools and some groups came to see Graffiti’s theatre space. They were then given set boxes and material and got to design the sets over three or four weeks, supported by set design artists and their teachers.

“Last week, we exhibited all 40 set designs from the schools here in Graffiti. We invited the children to come and vote for the best one. 

"They took it very seriously, as did we. They couldn’t vote for their own. They were very aware of the weight of the projects, had clipboards and pens and spent time reading the paragraphs explaining one another’s creative choices.”

A panel of designers, along with Julie and Artistic Director Niall Cleary, made the final decision. Next year, professional set designer Davy Dummigan will build the chosen set, in continued collaboration with the design group.

But that’s not the end of it. Each school will be matched up with a theatre professional to devise ten-minute plays over ten workshops, culminating in a performance on the set in May. Every school will get to perform to an audience of their peers and one person in each school will get a scholarship to join the company for a year.

Benefits

The aim of this projects, says Julie, is to encourage children to be artists in their own lives.

“The beauty of theatre is that there are so many entry points, from set design, to building, to sound and lighting, to performance, to writing or directing.

“There are so many different angles. And when the children come in to perform we will take it slowly, giving them time to rehearse with these professionals so that they are fully exposed to the different facets of our work.

“We really want to emphasise that theatre is a team effort and that they can play a role in creating something as a group.”

The child chosen for the scholarship will likely be someone who the teacher and the theatre professionals feel would really benefit from having access to a creative space. But, as Julie explains, the benefits are not just for the children.

“It is wonderful to see how engaged the children are. They simply cannot believe that we are going to take their work so seriously, that we will create the set and stage their performances. But the teachers have also expressed how inspiring the whole project has been. They have learned so much and they will carry that forward in their teaching for years to come.

“So, again, the impact is far-reaching thanks to the deep engagement the project allows.

“Teachers were so impressed to see how different the set designs were, saying that it was such a unique project. Some teachers were saying they couldn’t have imagined a creative project like this. Usually they are leading, here the children really are. The teacher is learning with the children. They don’t have set design backgrounds. For some teachers, it’s a bit overwhelming but they all agree that they’ve learned loads of new skills and creative approaches.”

The Graffiti team is keen to show young people that there’s a community in theatre and that everyone has something to offer. The group take children seriously, as Julie says, seeing them as artists too, capable of creating something beautiful and worthwhile.

“We get to unlock so much creative potential in children. It’s a real privilege. Relationships that children build with people in the artistic community will no doubt give them confidence in their own creative work.

“The relationship building throughout the process is key.”

More of the wonderfully created set designs.
More of the wonderfully created set designs.

The Toy Show Appeal

Having chatted to Julie O’Leary, who says she could talk about her project for hours, I will certainly watch the Late Late Toy Show with added zeal next Christmas. Sometimes criticised for its materialism, it has been a real treat to find out a little more about the work it does.

This is far from a once-a- year event. The Toy Show is making positive changes in children’s lives and thanks to passionate groups like Graffiti, those changes are likely to last a lifetime.

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