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From One Extreme to Another: Theatre in Education

Mike Harris' commissioned play about extremism, From One Extreme to Another, has been seen widely in schools in the UK. It has been successful in opening up discussion by young people and teachers of a sensitive topic, which can otherwise be difficult to approach.

The research

Senior lecturer Mike Harris is a writing partner for GW Theatre. His research consisted of the process of writing the play itself. He had to find an accessible contemporary form of theatre for school students from white and ethnic minority backgrounds, which could help them understand the origins and dangers of extremism for all communities. The artistic challenge was to produce a script that would deal with controversial issues that might appear in a play for the Royal Court, but for young audiences requiring the pace of Hollywood. The script had to meet the further aesthetic challenge of performances in 'difficult' schools, where the attention and silence of the audience cannot be guaranteed.

The project drew on writing for community theatre by Harris over a period of 20 years, which sought to represent perceptions about immigration, Islam and the far right in the UK including Strangers in Paradise, a four part drama series broadcast on BBC Radio Four. Research for these plays involved reading relevant historical and official sources (including all the official reports on the Oldham riots) and conducting interviews with people living on local estates, some involved in Islamist politics or in the BNP but most occupying the more moderate points in between.

The writing of One Extreme began shortly after the ‘7/7’ terrorist attacks in London and built on all of the above. The play itself and the performances were commissioned and then supported to tour schools by funding from central government agencies and local councils, which together allocated £260,000 to support development of the play and the tours. A pilot draft was performed in November 2007 and the script was then revised for tours beginning in 2008.

We have seen that extremists promote a world-view based on division and difference and prey on people who feel ignored or frustrated about their chances in life and confused about their identity. [The play] provides a means through which issues are brought to light, where they can be acknowledged, discussed and addressed.
Hazel Blears, former Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

The impact

One Extreme to Another toured nationally in UK schools and other community spaces between 2008 and 2013 by GW Theatre (circa 500 performances, total audience of about 100,000 people). The play was advertised via the GW Theatre website and a linked 'Extreme News' site and was especially staged in cities where there had been recent inter-community tensions (eg Bury, Oldham, Rochdale, and Luton). The direct beneficiaries have been secondary school pupils, college students, their teachers and members of community groups who have been enabled to discuss issues of far-right and Islamic extremism raised by the play.

Two evaluations analysed the impact of the play on student attitudes. The Bury Report concluded that theatre productions provoke discussion and reaction more than any other input allowing pupils to discuss sensitive issues through the characters, taking it away from the personal. It also reported on 1200 questionnaires completed by students to evaluate the effects of the play asking to what extent they agreed with questions such as ‘I understand what is meant by Political Extremism’ and ‘Being British is about being white and speaking English’. After the play answers to these questions reflected greater inclusivity and understanding of the issues.

The Greater Manchester schools' report, July 2011, draws on data collected after performances at Abraham Moss High School, Burnage Media and Arts College, Chorlton High School, Little Lever Languages College and Manchester Health Academy. It commented that the play increased their awareness of their own vulnerability to extremist exploitation and empowered them to make their own minds up, rather than being blinded by prejudices. The report found that the play’s effectiveness stemmed from its perceived even-handedness, for example, presenting issues as being common in Asian and white families.

Pupils made links between the play and other difficult issues such as bullying and domestic violence, commenting that these too were forms of violent extremism. They realised how easy it would be for anyone to be radicalised and that they were especially vulnerable as young people. Feedback suggested that the play was presented to them at the right time in their development, when they were adult enough to be made aware of these topics, but still flexible enough to work out their own views.

The play also contributed to a government policy intervening in a serious social and political issue. It was performed for MPs at Portcullis House in 2009 as an example of initiatives that might help communities resist extremism. Hazel Blears, as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, judged the play to be effective in this respect. It was also cited as a successful example of counter-extremism in the government's Prevent Strategy. Indeed, performances of the play have also been part of local government initiatives to address community cohesion, including the Leeds Bringing Communities Together Conference.

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