The story behind our storyteller Craig Christie | West End in Schools
Craig Christie has written original musical productions for primary schools around the world every year since 1992. His shows have been seen by over 2 million children in Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Singapore and Papua New Guinea.
During 2016, two of his shows - Jump to it! and Shine a Light – will run in British schools, performing to around 50,000 children.
Craig Christie is a man on a mission! He is passionate about inspiring young people’s imaginations and using storytelling and song writing in a positive social context. In his words, his career is built around the principle of “giving a voice to people whose stories would not otherwise be heard.”
Having been a teacher for ten years, Craig knows how creative work can help schools to engage young people in reading, the expressive arts and personal development. When writing a show, the ultimate impact and usage is always in Craig’s mind. He is already thinking about the teacher resources we’ll develop and the classroom activities the show will inspire.
While taking children on a musical adventure of the imagination, his literacy musicals cleverly showcase some brilliant books like Mr Magnolia by Quentin Blake and How to Be a Pirate by Cressida Cowell and the teacher resource packs help teachers use the show to engage children with the books. Craig even consults a children’s books librarian to ensure that the best books are incorporated.
His popular Jump to it! show explores the contemporary theme of computer gaming. Craig says that to some extent his own son inspired this show. It increases children's awareness of the isolating effect of staying in a room playing computer games and encourages them to take part in more varied activities.
Shine a Light, which is available for World Book Day, explores how a fear of the unknown can prevent enjoyment. The story highlights how unfounded some fears can be and highlights the benefit of talking to people. It encourages children not to keep their fears inside.
Taking the shows on the road
Craig knows that his shows will be performed in schools many times over by a variety of talented actors, signers and dancers. He works closely with the West End in Schools production team to make each show as portable as possible – the shows need to travel well!
He is brilliant at sharing his creative vision and ensuring everything is in place for a consistently excellent delivery of each show. He directs the template for each show with a choreographer in London. The songs are also recorded (with Craig in the studio) and provided to schools for pre-or post-show activities and also the recordings are used to help teach any new cast members.
So, there is a script, soundtrack and choreography - all of which are thoroughly rehearsed. But “West End performers do of course have their own take on some things - this keeps it fresh. And of course every audience and school is different, the interactions with the children make each show unique,” says Craig. Once the show is on the road the actors really take ownership of the work – there is a sense of personal responsibility and freedom.
A winning formula
Some schools book a literacy musical upfront as an introduction to texts they will be using in the curriculum – a way to really inspire the children to read the books. Other teachers familiarise the children with the books first and use the show to further develop their thinking and engagement with the texts and characters.
Craig is understandably proud of the simplicity of the formula he and West End in Schools have created to engage children in a journey of the imagination, in the comfort of their own school hall. The shows are very stripped back. Craig describes it like this; “We don’t require hundreds of costumes and huge props like a helicopter and chandelier! Every school environment is slightly different and we adapt to this.
“The most important thing is the people. Actors are obsessed by what they do and the children feed off their enthusiasm. Our actors typically have three years professional training in engaging audiences with stories, and have performed in top London shows. They are pretty much on stage the whole time, really physicalizing the characters and using their talent to activate the children’s own imaginations.
“The costume is not a focus. The set is not otherworldly. The music is done in a conventional pop music style. Overall we strive to create a sense of familiarity, which feels accessible to most children - and they join in! Sometimes they’re up on stage with the actors, sometimes they contribute from where they are sat. At the end of the show we have a short Q&A between the actors and the children, which checks their understanding of the story and its themes.”
The other part of the formula is how well it works for the West End stars themselves. Appearing in one of Craig’s musicals is a good way for actors to ‘keep fit’ between West End stage shows. It helps them ‘keep it real’, as children are the most honest audience you’ll get! The simplicity of the formula ensures that the actors are paid proper rates for their work and West End in Schools has enough cast members on the books to enable individuals to fit auditions in between performances in schools.
How do we know it’s a winning formula?
The testimonials from schools speak for themselves.
Craig also tells a lovely little story to illustrate the kind of impact these shows can have. The lead actress staring in Matilda, the multi award winning musical, was once in the audience of a West End in Schools show. It was during that live performance in her school that she had ‘her moment’ – the moment she realised this is what she has to do with her life!