Women & Theatre are working in partnership with the Birmingham Hippodrome and the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers Museum (Royal Warwickshire) in the delivery of a participatory heritage project exploring the experiences of young men and boys from Birmingham during WWI.

The project will bring together a group of 14-25 year old males to research the experiences of young recruits during WWI and share them through live performances around an old drill hall site area in Thorp Street, a temporary exhibition at the RRF Museum and this digital archive. We will be updating this blog with material as the project progresses, and hope you will enjoy an insight into the process.

We are very fortunate to have received funding for this project from the Heritage Lottery Fund, The Grimmit Trust, The Cole Charitable Trust, The Roughley Trust, The Rowlands Trust and Service Birmingham. We are also grateful to Chung Ying Garden and the Gallan Group for their permission to use the old Drill Hall site.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Audio letters from The Chocolate Soldiers

During the project, each participant created a character, researching their 'backstory' and then writing a letter home to their loved one as that character.  These letters were used as part of the performances in March 2014.  The letters are included here for you to have a listen, and also can be accessed at the RRF museum as part of our project exhibition.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

A view of the project from a participant

Back in November 2013, I replied to an email which was forwarded to me regarding The Chocolate Soldiers project - A Heritage Theatre Project on World War 1.

Initially, I wasn't sure what to expect, but excitedly attended the first session back in November. This gave me a chance to find out more about the project, what was involved, the dates I needed to be available, as well as meeting other participants on the project.

Overall, my experience has been absolutely wonderful! I've thoroughly enjoyed being part of the project. As well as learning about the First World War, I've had the opportunity to watch War Horse (TWICE), got to meet other students from Queensbridge School, Elmhurst School of Dance, & Moseley School, I've built on my confidence, and Oral Skills.

Being part of this project has enabled me to go out of my comfort zone and do something I previously hadn't done – theatre.  It's enabled me to broaden my horizons, work with new people, try a new experience, make new friends, and build on my skills too!

I've thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and it's certainly been one of my memorable experiences of 2014!  Looking back now, my initial doubts, fears, and misconceptions have been quashed.  I'm so glad I was part of this amazing project.

Production photos - Sunday 30 March

Janice introduces the project and production to the audience

The recruitment scene 

The audience line up for their march to the Drill Hall site

Families say goodbye to their 'loved ones'

The recruits are waved off with flags and singing 

The Sergeant puts the recruits through their paces

The boys write their letters home

A last minute talk 

The night before the battle

Going over the top

The audience see who has returned, and in what state

White roses (for peace) are given to all the female audience members
- it's Mothers Day!

The Performance - Sunday 30 March

(written by Shabraz - project participant)

The day of the performance itself began with a dry run, before the big shows at 2:00pm & 4:00pm. Nerves were kicking in, for me and the other members, but one thing is for sure, we were going to seize the moment and grab this opportunity with both hands!
After the final practices had been done, we moved to the Foyer where the performance began. World War I music began as the boys descended down the stairs, imitating a group of young lads from the war era, who were getting ready to sign up.

Minutes later, a very attractive looking lady by the name of Frankie comes down the stairs, with a man on her arm, much to the delight of these young boys, who erupt in cheers!
The lads were then asked to sign up for the army as their country needed them and it was a duty that was expected. As they signed up they were given the kings shilling, congratulated, and made their way back into the line. The audience were then asked to line up, as if they were signing up too (actually giving the boys a chance to assemble in the car park!) and then they were led out.

In the Thorp Street car park, (the old Drill Hall site), each spectator was handed an ID card with a boy’s details on - we had to find him, hand him a good luck charm, and say our final goodbyes.
Once every boy had been found and families had said their farewells, the boys made a line and marched back into the Hippodrome’s Patrick Centre studio to prepare for war.  The audience followed them and upon arrival, saw the soldiers being instructed by the Sergeant, and then writing letters to their loved ones.

To lighten the sombre mood, the lads put on an entertainment show which featured a magician, jugglers & tap dancers, much to the delight of the audience.  
As the war began, all non combatants were asked to leave the theatre of war and escorted back to the foyer, where they saw the lads come back from the War injured.

The performance received rave reviews from the audiences, which delighted all those involved.

Monday, 31 March 2014

Rehearsal - Monday 17 March 2014

The group worked on the concert party scene during this evening’s rehearsal.  There are lots of talented boys in the performance (pianists, dancers, magicians and comperes) and a lot of fun was had trying to organise individual performances into a coherent scene.  We think we’ve got it now – there’s just some practice needed!  

As was the norm in ‘behind the lines’ parties, ours will close with toasts to the army, and a unison singing of ‘God Save the King’. 

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Rehearsal - Monday 10 March 2014

Yet another thought-provoking session as we came together at the Hippodrome rehearsal space. The group of young men drew their attention to the 'drill' scene to be performed in the car park opposite the theatre on Throp Street. In previous years this building was the old Drill Hall where army ranks used to train and information about this historic building will be included in the scene.  In order for this to be performed 'on site', the audience as well as the actors will need to get to the car park.  The boys were faced with the question of 'how?'  To find out how they resolved the issue, come along to the performance!
W&T Artistic Director Janice Connolly also asked the boys to think about the trenches, focusing on how the soldiers slept and the conditions that all soldiers involved in WWI had to endure - whichever country they were from.  With a wealth of different languages between the group (Greek to French, Russian to Japanese), the boys decided to integrate these within a 'dream scene' to capture the similarity between soldiers of all nationalities.

Monday, 10 March 2014

First rehearsal - Monday 3 March

On Monday 3 March the group met at the Hippodrome to begin the devising process of The Chocolate Soldiers. There were lots of creative ideas flowing as the boys worked on the opening scene in the foyer area at the Hippodrome, showing the recruitment of the young boys from Birmingham.  We’ve also been choosing music for the performance - volunteer Frankie found the perfect note singing the song ‘Your King and Country’ with some of the lads joining in as well. The recruiting officer’s speech sounded great and we’re working on adding a layer of audience participation with the distribution of both anti and pro war flyers.  There was much fun and laughter in the session along with a sense of ‘getting the show on the road.’ A great start to rehearsals.