As a writer of diverse fantasy I love Wicked, book and musical. It’s a fascinating example the rewriting of a classic story to tell it from another perspective which I think is almost a postcolonial retelling, like Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre. It tells the story of The Wizard of Oz from the view of the demonised, marginalised, Othered character of the Wicked Witch of the West, Elphaba, and her struggles for justice and a place in the world of Oz as its only green-skinned citizen. I love the richly imagined world, the politics, the nuanced characters who are never totally evil or good, but tortured by choices, motivated by passions. Just like The Wizard of Oz, it is a fertile playground for rewritings and reimaginings.
So I was delighted when I was asked to design a two-session schools workshop for an engagement project with Mayflower Engage and Artfulscribe/So:Write UK in the run up to Wicked returning to the Mayflower Theatre in October later this year.
The brief was an interesting one, and challenging in some respects. The workshops would be offered to school years spanning from early primary, Year 2, to middle and secondary, up to Year 9. The students by and large would not have seen Wicked, and few as a result would know much about it. Wicked has a simple premise (Was the Wicked Witch of the West born evil?) but a complex plot and nuanced characters with intricate individual storylines. Some of the material deals with romance, violence, oppression. And of course, it is related to, but also significantly different from, The Wizard of Oz. So how would I design something that would give a taster of the musical, but not overwhelm participants with information?
There was also a need to have a visual element to the workshops: participating schools have been invited to submit poster displays for a competition that will see some of the selected posters displayed in the Mayflower foyer, to be seen by the thousands who will come and see Wicked in October.
All of this in two short sessions ranging from 40 to 90 minutes each.
I decided to design 2 workshops: one for Years 2-5, and one for Years 6-9.
The format for Years 2-5 was thus as follows, and focused for the most part on The Wizard of Oz, but Wicked, through the idea of “Emerald City” as a fantastical place of hope and possibility for both Dorothy and Elphaba at crucial points in the stories. I thought it would be an easy “hook” for young imaginations: imagine the city – what would it look like, smell like, feel like? What wonders could you see there?
Emerald City Workshop for Years 2-5:
Interactive Storytelling on Whiteboard (10 min)
The benefit with Wicked is its relationship to a story so many of us do know in one form or another: The Wizard of Oz. We thus began with an interactive storytelling exercise where I asked the group to tell me the story, with prompts such as “Who is the girl who features in the story?” and “How does she end up in Oz?” It felt important that this was shared collectively, so that those students who didn’t know much about The Wizard of Oz would be confident enough to participate in the following activities.
Where we had time and space, we did this using sticky notes (yellow for Oz, green for Wicked) on a map beautifully designed by Hollie Ward:
Wicked Detectives (15 min)
Vikki Simmons from Mayflower Engage had given me some promotional leaflets for Wicked that featured some fantastic, dynamic images from the show:
I thus asked the group to split into groups of 4 and see how much they could deduce from the images and text on the leaflets of the plot of Wicked and how it might be different from Oz. Some of the hypotheses the students came up with were quite incredible but I am amazed at how much of the actual plot they could pick out from the images: that Elphaba was not always bad, that she and Glinda were friends, that Elphaba went to school so the story must be about when she was younger, even that maybe she was bullied at school for being different. It was an excellent, interactive way for the students to discover the story for themselves.
Emerald City mind map beginnings
If we had time, we started to imagine in words or through drawing, what Emerald City might be like. I encouraged students to write down “describing words” and to push beyond the obvious “green” and “as green as grass” options. As a result we got some inventive and wonderful words, even “as green as broccoli”!
Emerald City Mind Map recreation (10min)
The second sessions began a week later so we repeated or began from scratch the mind map from the end of session one.
However, I included a twist here. Each child who volunteered a word for the board was given a little piece of paper with the word “Writer” on it. I called them badges. As they got handed out, it intrigued the others, who were encouraged and curious, and so put up their hands more eagerly as a result.(I reassured those that didn’t get the badges that they would also get some, but different ones. They were given different badges: ARTISTS.
This, for me, was an important part of the sessions. I knew that if I asked students if they wanted to write or draw the Emerald City, 90% of the class would opt to draw. It’s fun, it’s easier. But I really wanted the majority, any child confident enough (which volunteering a word in the group would indicate) to write their Emerald City into being. At the same time I knew there some in the group who had drawn amazing images and I wanted to encourage them too.
The point of the badges, too, relates back to my difficulties with the terms “writer” and “artist.” Until the past year or so, despite writing prolifically, embroidering and painting and drawing to a decent A-level A grade standard, I’ve never been able to bring myself to call myself an artist or a writer. I found the two words deeply intimidating. I remember at the Penguin Random House open day, the moment when Nikesh Shukla told all of us, all fifty shortlisted writers that we were writers and we had to call ourselves such. Then I met Matt West for the first time, a couple of weeks later, and stammering and hunching my shoulders apologetically, I did say “I’m a writer” for the first time. He asked me to apply for the So:Write library residency, and those two moments led to all the incredible things that have happened since, including these workshops.
In giving out these badges to the children who offered words or who would craft drawings, I hoped that it might start them on that journey, if they so wished, that it might plant a little seed of possibility within them. I wonder, if someone had looked at my poems when I was younger, and told me I was a writer, would I have struggled so much all my life to own that as part of who I am? It was a brief, silly activity, but I really feel like the students enjoyed and luxuriated in the titles they were given. It made them feel important, special, and that being a writer or an artist are special, important things too.
One Short Day in Emerald City (video, 4 min)
I then played the group a video: the song One Short Day in Emerald City from Wicked. This was such a brilliant way to immerse the students in what Emerald City might be and what it might also mean for Elphaba and/or Dorothy. The Royal Variety performance on YouTube has a lovely introduction by Adam Garcia which gives even more contextualisation.
Writing/Drawing (20 min)
Each student was then given a piece of green paper. Writers were asked to use the words they had come up with in the previous session, the ones on the board, and their imaginations and the song as inspiration, to start a piece which could be poem, story, diary entry or letter, with the words “One short day in Emerald City”. It was useful to give some of the less confident writers this first line as a jumping-off point.
I encouraged the artists to make their own skylines of Emerald City using the drawings they had made previously, and to cut them out. We circulated and supported the students who needed further encouragement.
Performance/Sharing (15 min)
At the end of the making and writing session we asked writers to stand and read out their pieces, if they were proud of them. I gave each reader positive feedback and praise, picking out elements I loved, and each reader was given a round of applause.
We then asked the artists to line up at the front of the classroom or hall, and put their skylines together and high above their heads, to make one long, green, skyline. It looked beautiful! I then invited one of the readers (someone whose work showed real beauty and imagination) to read their piece with the collective skyline behind them. It was a really beautiful piece of performed art. The writers were asked to give the artists a round of applause.
Wicked Voices workshop, session one (Years 6-9 and up)
Interactive Storytelling of The Wizard of Oz (15 min)
Wicked Detectives (10 min)
The first part of these 90-minute sessions was very similar to the Year 2-5 sessions, as we found that older students’ knowledge of The Wizard of Oz was in fact hazier and less immediate than that of the younger students, and it was important to establish a narrative foundation. However, we shortened the leaflet exercise, because the following activity would in fact give a much more detailed introduction to plot and characters.
Script Readings (30 min)
We then split the group into groups of 2, 3 or 4 and gave them copies of the script extracts that form one of Wicked educational packs, available for free online on the Wicked Musical’s website. There are some fantastic resources there, including a whole set of lesson plans on bullying in relation to Elphaba’s story, designed to encourage empathy and kindness. If I was designing a longer set of sessions with a school, where I could develop a stronger bond with the class, I would definitely use these as the basis of empathetic writing work focusing on race and difference.
The students were asked to adopt roles and read through the scripts, thinking through what was going on, who the characters were, and why they were behaving as they were.
Script Sharings (20 min)
Groups were then asked to read out their scenes in chronological order in front of the class (which was either very enthusiastically done, or done with some reluctance!) We then asked the group as a whole to summarise the scene and the main plot and character points, which were written up on the board. As all the scenes were critical plot or character points, this gave a much more detailed contextualisation of the plot of Wicked than the leaflet exercise. It was a perfect primer, therefore, for a more challenging writing task.
One Killer Line (5 min)
If we had time, finally I asked everyone to pick and write down one crucial line from either their character’s perspective, or from another’s if they were truly not inspired. I asked them to identify a line that intrigued, or resonated, or told us something really important about the character.
Wicked Voices workshop, session two (Years 6-9 and up)
Script Readings (20 min)
We went back over and finished the script readings, or repeated them, in order to refresh memories of the intricate plot – this time with a firm eye on that “killer line” – which I here told them would be for their writing task.
Killer Line selection (5 min)
We then asked again for students to reflect on their scripts overall and think about the line they wanted to pick. We supported and guided those who struggled to choose – it isn’t an easy thing to do!
Writing task (35 min)
We then asked the students to focus on their killer line and the character who speaks it. The pieces of writing could be anything – from some of the lines already selected, I could tell some leaned towards particular genres: diary entries, monologues or short stories, for example. But it was completely open, and to be led through the line itself.
This was challenging for them because it required them to make an editorial decision based on a few words. We went around and supported those who found it too difficult. But most did get the idea and we even had a political speech come of a line!
Sharing (20 min)
Then writers were asked to share work, and given positive feedback. There were some exceptional pieces of work: a scene which perfectly rendered the voice of Chistery the monkey, for example, and a beautiful, extraordinary piece which I felt was better-textured and characterised than the original book!
All the schools have been invited now to put together poster displays from the work done in these workshops, of which some will be selected for display at the Mayflower Theatre.
It’s been a joy to work alongside Hollie Ward, ArtfulScribe and Vikki Simmons of Mayflower Engage on this project. We all have differing skill sets and expertise, and it was a privilege to learn from them. We worked together so well as a team.
These workshops have been provided through the SO:Write Literature Development project, led by ArtfulScribe in partnership with Mayflower Theatre and generously supported by funding from Arts Council England and SO:Write UK project partners.