The Forever Machine: The Curious Farm

Our latest project, The Forever Machine, is a collaboration between us, The Bike Shed Theatre and Farms for City Children. Farms for City Children is a charity that offers urban children from all over the country a unique opportunity to live and work together for a week at a time on a real farm in the heart of the countryside. As part of the R&D for The Forever Machine Tom and Edie, two of the show’s makers, joined children from Orchard Vale School on Nethercott farm for two days. Tom wrote this blog about his time on the farm.

When I visited Nethercott farm earlier this year, as I was driving up in the taxi, I felt very nervous. I realised that I hadn’t spoke to children for a very long time. My siblings and cousins are all adults now and although I run workshops for teenagers, I rarely come into contact with children of primary school age. So I was nervous. I had no idea what to expect. I’ve made shows for families before, but ‘The Forever Machine’ is a show for 7–12 year olds. What are they interested in? What do they enjoy? What do they find exciting? — I realise now as I write this blog that this has formed into a sort of anthropological study of my time on the farm!

We began development for ‘The Forever Machine’ under the intriguing (if potentially ambiguous) title: ‘The Curious Farm’. But as we wrote our ideas for the story, and after discussing it with The Bike Shed’s team, the title seemed too quaint. The name evoked a pastel coloured, crayon drawn set and songs called things like: “who lives on the farm?” and “what’s the difference between hay and straw?”

After Edie and I visited Nethercott Farm, it became really clear that we didn’t want to make that kind of show. We were visiting the farm to get a feel for our audience: children aged between 7–12. The young people that were staying at Nethercott on that particular week were from a school fairly nearby. They were a excitable, very varied bunch of 10 and 11 year olds.

There wasn’t much time to chat as we were hard at work on the farm: feeding the chickens, cows, pigs etc. Yet, in the moments of conversation that I did share, two particular things about the age group struck me.

  1. Its a very diverse age group. There was a huge range in how old the children seemed. Some felt like young adults. They’d speak to you with a great deal of seriousness about politics or the potential extinction of particular animals. Even if they’d use half remembered facts and snippets of their parents’ opinions, they were very mature. In the morning, after we visited some piglets, we had a pork roast for lunch. Some children spoke with furrowed brows and in measured sentences about their decision to yes, eat the pork and connect to the process of farming more intimately, or no, just eat the vegetables because the piglets were far too valuable to be slaughtered for our food. On the other hand, other children seemed very young. They needed to be close to the teachers, or may have difficulty talking at length to other kids. Yet, these children were also filled with inquisitiveness and wonder. On our afternoon walk, they would often fall to the back of the crowd because they were intrigued by some odd shaped dandelion or badger hole. They would stop and stare, taking it all in. I was jealous of that relationship to the world around them: curiousness, questioning, wonder. They were totally present.
  2. Its an age of obsessions. I noticed that they all had one thing that they loved to talk about. One boy loved cars. But not just sports cars. Any kind of car. He asked me earnestly “If I could own any 6-seater family car, what would I choose?”. I remembered that when I was his age I was obsessed with two things: Will Smith and Jazz. (yep. I was very cool. Also, not any particular jazz artist, but just jazz, like the concept.)

I felt like I was catching people really starting to articulate themselves. They were starting to work out who they were and what they stood for. They could comprehend the world fully and were starting to question it. They were processing if things could exist in another way. They were smart, thoughtful and creative.

So the show we’re making has to tiptoe a line: it has to be clear and we have to lead them carefully through the story but it also has to push boundaries -it has to be as exciting as their imaginations, and as clever as their minds! The worst thing that the show could do would be to talk down to the children, to over explain, to talk too slow, to soften all the sharp edges.

So, RIP Curious Farm, hello Forever Machine.

Yet, after all that talk and all our devising, vegetables and farming do make several key appearances in The Forever Machine. Perhaps The Curious Farm would have been an apt title after all. (just so we’re clear, I wouldn’t say the show is ‘about’ agriculture per se. Just as The Lord of The Rings isn’t ‘about’ jewellery, or Singing in The Rain isn’t ‘about’ precipitation.)

We’re now half way through the whole process and it’s shaping up nicely.

Thanks for reading!

The Forever Machine opens at the Bike Shed Theatre on Monday 24 October and runs until Saturday 29 October. More info and tickets here.