In 1974, musician and composer, Jo Collins, met Mary Ward, a teacher and director. With a shared belief in harnessing the creativity in everyone and anyone, they started a theatre company. In a chicken shed.
Their creative process worked. More members joined as church halls replaced the eponymous shed. In the early 1980s the company included a boy with cerebral palsy for the first time. ‘If we’re open to everyone, why is he the only one?’ asked teenage members. Enter John Bull and his pioneering work on integration. He joined with Mary and Jo and Chickenshed became the first truly inclusive theatre company. Open to everyone.
Judi Dench and Trevor Nunn joined us as pro-active Trustees. Our first CD, a record contract, TV and West End performances followed – and an increasingly public profile.
Amidst all this, 1988 was a pivotal year: Lord and Lady Rayne met Chickenshed – and Lady Rayne became our President. She introduced our work to The Princess of Wales, who ‘got’ Chickenshed, heart and mind, from the start. As our Royal Patron, she shared her time – personal and professional – and gave us genuine loyalty and unwavering support.
When Enfield Council pledged land for a theatre, it was Lord and Lady Rayne who tirelessly raised the funds to build it. In December 1994, the company moved into a beautiful flexible space. At the heart of the building sits The Rayne Theatre, named after the family who turned our dreams into reality.
From our new home, things really took off. 1995 saw our first national tour. 2 months, 20 performers, 5 cities and 20 schools, enjoyed by over 5,000 people.
For Mary and Jo, the concept of inclusion that seemed so obvious at the start is now an international movement with a mission to change the world. The awards that recognise this – two MBEs, ‘This is Your Life’, Creative Briton Award, a Snowdon Award and Honorary Doctorates included – are as much for Chickenshed as for them.
Some of the original 1970s members are still the core of our company. Most have moved on, outside performance art, but the Chickenshed experience remains within them all. Adult lives underpinned by the values and skills absorbed during their magical time at the Shed. And an understanding that diversity and inclusiveness should be a way of life.
That understanding is just as relevant for members today. Every extraordinary piece of theatre they create at Chickenshed shouts out the same thing: anyone can thrive in an environment where everyone is welcome.