As a boy, growing up in Wadowice, Blessed John Paul II – Karol Wojtyla – wanted to be an actor and, as a teenager, he participated in the school theatre.
In 1938 on enrolling at Krakow’s Jagiellonian University he was able to study drama until the Nazis ended classes during the occupation of Poland in 1939.
Then, during the Second World War, with a former teacher, Mieczyslaw Kotlarczyk, he co-founded the Rhapsodic Theatre, an underground theatre group, which clandestinely performed nationalistic works and kept alive the Romantic tradition of live poetry.
After the war, and now a priest, Fr.Wojtyla continued to encourage the theatre group and he published critical appreciations of their performances. He also put pen to paper and among his dramas are “Our God’s Brother” and “The Jeweller’s Shop.” Throughout his life he had a love of theatre, music and the arts, once famously quipping: “ I have a sweet tooth for song and music. This is my Polish sin.”
An adaptation of “The Jeweller’s Shop” – “The Jeweller” – was recently staged by the Ten Ten theatre company at London’s Leicester Square Theatre.
From his celestial vantage point I am sure John Paul would have given excellent reviews but, more importantly, his enthusiastic encouragement to this young Catholic theatre company, founded by Martin O’Brien and his sister, Clare, in 2006 – with behind the scenes full time voluntary help from their mother, Anna and a small team of professionals.
After watching “The Jeweller” – more of which in a moment – I met up with Martin and Clare. They explained why they had established Ten Ten – now a registered charity – and described their nationwide work, undertaken from their offices based in Our Lady’s Church in New Southgate, North London. The charity receives no core funding and is reliant on the revenues and donations earned or raised.
Ten Ten are currently working with over 65,000 school children, young people, and young offenders and are now one of the largest providers of external education and pastoral support in the UK’s Catholic schools.
Within the setting of drama their work raises the full gamut of social challenges – from knife crime to the traumas posed by collapsing family structures; from addiction to the sanctity and dignity of life itself.
In primary schools two of their actors run workshops and deliver two of their plays, along with 60 minute sessions for parents. David Quinn, RE Adviser to the Diocese of Nottingham, describes how the values taught in Nottingham’s schools are “made more meaningful to the children” through the performances and workshops and that “the quality and content is superb.”
Their work in secondary schools – which, through the lens of self worth and being made in God’s image, explores controversial contemporary themes – has been given equally strong approval.
Archbishop Patrick Kelly commented that their work touches on “issues which matter greatly to young people”. Nathan Brown, at the Benedictine Worth School remarked on the “myriad of complex issues which were handles with sensitivity without lecturing or castigating” believing that “the message conveyed will …last in our hearts for a very long time.” Ten Ten’s theology advisor, Fr. Stephen Wang, is currently writing a booklet for parents to keep enabling them to cultivate the seeds which may have been planted.
In addition to their work in schools Ten Ten have developed a one-day programme for Confirmation candidates and for retreats. They have also been running eight week-long workshops in Young Offender Institutions.
Barry and Margaret Mizen, the parents of Jimmy Mizen, the murdered school-boy, work with their Safer Streets team. As part of this work, Martin O’Brien wrote “Sam’s Story” – dramatising the way in which young people can be so easily drawn into a world of violence and crime – and Ten Ten have performed and developed this and work improvised by young offenders themselves.
But, in addition, during 2011 Ten Ten have undertaken a number of public performances. Earlier this year “Good Creatures” was commissioned by the Arts Council and in September they are planning a run of public performances of their children’s play, “Healthy Heart.”
Like the Christian theatre company – Saltmine – whose performance of C.S.Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters” I saw earlier this year at the Burnley Mechanics Theatre (and voted a brilliant performance by my fourteen year old son, James), and who are currently performing “Pilgrims Progress” – Ten Ten know that there is a real appetite for good faith-based drama. That was why Leicester Square Theatre was full to see their contemporary re-imagining of Pope John Paul’s “The Jeweller’s Shop.”
“The Jeweller” tells the age old story of unfulfilled life, disappointed love, brokenness, human nature and the call of faith. In many respects, the original play – along with Wojtyla’s thesis “Love and Responsibility” – was the genesis of the ideas which shaped is later teaching and which would be described as “The Theology of the Body.” Central to his beliefs was an insistence on the dignity of the human person and their right to free will. He passionately believed that “As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live.”
Martin O’Brien sets his version of the play in the England of the last three decades. The London production was staged on a small budget, rehearsed in less than a week, and with sparse technical effects and a very basic set. Yet, the timeless themes speak above these limitations. Ten Ten make no secret of their hope that they will be able to bring the play to an established theatre, with high production values. And they believe there would be a significant potential audience interested to see this adaptation of John Paul’s play. The comedian, Frank Skinner, described “The Jeweller” as “deeply funny, gut-wrenchingly sad and thought provoking.”
But whether it is through drama, movies, or the whole array of modern means of communication, John Paul knew that the old story and the old truths had to be told in new ways: “The question confronting the Church today,” he said, “is not any longer whether the man in the street can grasp a religious message, but how to employ the communications media so as to let him have the full impact of the Gospel message.”
As Ten Ten are successfully demonstrating, drama and the theatre can be brilliantly deployed in giving that message new appeal.
www.tententheatre.co.uk firstname.lastname@example.org 0845 388 3162
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