Orlando is...

Debbie Kershaw, Learning Officer at National Trust property Hanbury Hall, describes her journey through prejudice & pride with Clay & Diamonds...

From the moment I heard about bringing Orlando: The Queer Element to schools I was intrigued, excited and to be honest, a little anxious. I grew up in a generation where the word 'Queer' was firmly used as a pejorative term. It was designed to mock, hurt and offend – to point out difference or ‘peculiarity’ and to ridicule it. So my first question in joining the project team was – ‘Is it okay to use this word?’

Many other organisations are yet to embrace the Q in their LGBT language and to me it felt rather alien and uncomfortable, especially if I was going to be pitching this to schools. Of course, as I later learned, Virginia Woolf refers to ‘the queer element of the human spirit’ in her novel Orlando, from which the project got its title. The fact that a lot of people, me included, have not read the novel meant it was going to raise a few eyebrows when presented to teachers, heads and parents. Obviously the dual meaning is deliberate. The project explores gender - what it means to be male or female and what it means when you don’t ‘fit’ or want to be defined by these terms and their incumbent stereotypes. It was designed to be thought provoking and challenging. This is entirely appropriate when you consider that bullying in schools remains a significant problem and kids who are considered ‘different’ whether through sexual orientation or identification, religion, disability or any number of other traits outside ‘the established norm’ face physical and mental abuse simply for being who they are.

The more I learned about this project the more passionate I felt that this was something schools should be queuing up to experience. This should be right up there at the top of the curriculum along with sex education. There wasn’t a worksheet for this on Twinkl – you couldn’t easily drop this subject into your teaching trolley like a box of eggs. Yet here was this unique, exciting, relevant, thought provoking, cross-curricular, quirky, slightly insane, gift wrapped opportunity. With all that in mind I thought it would be an ‘easy sell’...

Turns out I was wrong.

It took a level of persistence bordering on stalking, a handful of amazing progressive teachers and a producer who I believe, would literally have bent over backwards if he could, to get schools signed up for this. One Catholic school we reached out to - where it could be argued pupils need this kind of experience the most - declined to take part quoting that such topics were ‘against the school ethos.’ Teachers I spoke to felt frustrated, but ultimately were bound by the constraints of the headteacher, governors, the church and parents. We did manage, through personal contact, to get one Catholic school involved although the teacher told me she had been given strict instructions that only Sixth Formers were to be offered the trip, that under no circumstances were lower school (i.e. anyone under the age of 17) to be involved.

Our other schools had no religious affiliation which helped, but there were other barriers to overcome. This is where I loop back to the word 'Queer'. It seems that the prejudice associated with this word is very much still alive and kicking. The trip was vastly undersubscribed by pupils unwilling to sign up due to fears over being bullied; those who had signed up, or been signed up by parents, experiencing homophobic abuse at school. (It’s worth mentioning that this only seemed to be directed at boys by other boys.) With the trip in danger of being cancelled we put on our armour and prepared to do battle – a battle of words and attitudes that is, no real blood was spilled, only a bit of theatrical when an ancient Greek killed his mother. The teacher in charge of the trip gave some inspiring assemblies, kids used their own social media platforms to get others involved, the bullies were shamed and before we knew it we were sold out. A proud moment indeed- the trip was suddenly cool.

The performance days arrived and pupils and teachers approached what was a complex multi-layered experience with enthusiasm and maturity, fully embracing both the aspects they understood and those they didn’t, asking questions and engaging in debate. The feedback from pupils ranged from ‘exciting’, ‘scary’, ‘challenging’ to ‘solid’ and in one instance ‘bonza!’ School audiences were awed by the talent of the actors from Fourth Monkey; their ability to move us through a changing tide of emotions, always keeping us just outside the realm of comfortable. I marvelled at the logistical alchemy performed by the production team in seamlessly moving us from one experience to the next. (As someone who has to regularly move multiple groups of schoolchildren around a fairly small house I know how challenging this can be.) Most agreed that they would have loved more time to explore the themes and that they didn’t fully, or even partially, understand Sally Potter’s film Orlando (shown at the end) which was ok – neither did we, but then life is confusing.

So now that it’s all over and the schools have been and gone what lessons have I learned? On a practical level I have been taught by the goddess Athena herself how to hold a shield and spear properly, which every self respecting person should know. On a personal level I have felt privileged to work with the truly inspiring team at Clay & Diamonds and with some incredible teachers. More importantly, as someone who spends a good deal of their time teaching kids of all ages, I have learned that most of them welcome the chance to embrace diversity and to have their mindsets and pre-conceptions challenged. They just need to be encouraged to head in the right direction sometimes.

At the end of the performance a conversation between Alan Turing and Virginia Woolf takes place, a conversation that moved me to tears every time I saw it. Virginia Woolf ends the piece by repeating “Orlando is...” – the words lingering in the air like an incantation, potent yet intangible.

Orlando is, by her own admission, indefinable. It means something different to each person. For me, if I had to finish that sentence, I would say Orlando is a great big crazy, intoxicating, beautiful signpost pointing in the right direction.   

George Macpherson