Cheryl Beer

Cheryl Beer
Award Winning Creative Director making social change through the mediums of sound, story & mantra

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Living the secret dream

 Heaven's Atrium!
Last year, having my individual mainline grant from The Arts Council of Wales changed my world. It opened up my eyes to the depths and reach of my own creativity and brought me home to my artistic self.
When my funding finished, I knew that I had to hold onto that space in my life to create and make and write and be ... for ME! To make space just for myself, because it is who I am and what makes me feel most alive. I learnt that it is not selfish to make space for oneself to create, it is essential.
I reflected on the year & thought back to the child me, who wanted to perform, who joined St. Mary's Players at the age of 12 and played the lead for 5 years, the school girl happy to be in drama class and to the young woman who longed to pursue drama as a career.
But my family felt it was important for me to build what they insisted was a 'proper' career to 'fall back on'. 30 years ago, things were different; there weren't courses like there are now in performing arts. Working class girls from the estate, had done very well indeed if they were offered a place to train as a nurse, and as I was offered a place to train as a nurse,  that is precisely what I did.
I don't regret that for one moment. My creativity has always eeked it's way through ...
I wrote an age appropriate intergenerational pantomime, campaign poems with other student nurses, played in a band and in the stillness of the nursing accommodation block, I wrote my little songs on my guitar.
And then, after nursing, my first degree in Behavioural Sciences, a post graduate diploma in Careers Education (ironically!) and then a Masters in Social Science & Economics ...

When I got into my late 20's, I decided to throw in the towel as Director of WISE & join the circus, going full time into the world of mainstream music ... and it was fab, I toured with amazing people and had a wild old time.
When I was in my 30's I was offered the opportunity to get involved in community arts and from that time my life has become completely immersed in this type of work, to the extent that I have developed from a person who delivered workshops in a team or individually, to a person who has been a Song Consultant, Musical Director, Artistic Director and now a Creative Director.
People say to me ... 'You're so lucky to be following your dream.' But actually, if I'm absolutely honest, I stopped following my true, inner dream when I was 19 & did as my family felt best.
What I realised after my year of the Individual Mainline Grant, is that throughout my life, I have cobbled together the kind of dream that people like me, are allowed to dream; my dreams have been constrained by stereotype ; denying my longing to have pursued what was my inner most desire, a dream that I believed was out of my reach: drama.
I always say to people, 'How do you know about the Arts if you haven't experienced them?' and I came to ask myself the same question!
What informed choices have I been making in my life about my creativity? I have learnt from the opportunities that have arisen or from those I have made happen, but with no formal training in the performing arts, how do I know that I am all of what I might be?

And it is this train of thought that led me to apply for  a Foundation Degree in Performing Arts/Drama.
I went for the interview /audition and for the first time in my life, I felt as if I was a round peg in a round hole! I was able just to be ME! And no one found that odd or strange!
The tutor leading the interview gave me the most amazing feedback and I left there flying.

She said that drama was my gift!
I could have cried! In fact I did. The one thing that had been my hidden secret dream inside my soul, was my 'gift'.  I swear I walked taller that day.
She asked me why I was applying for a foundation degree and not the MA in Drama. I couldn't believe it! I said to her that I would never have the confidence to apply for the Masters Degree in Drama. She explained that she had done the course and loved it. She felt strongly that I should apply. I thanked her, but said that I could never even imagine applying.

When I got home, she had kindly emailed me saying that she would love for me to come onto her course , but if I could build the confidence to do so, I should contact The Atrium; she sent me the details of the course and number of the course tutor of the MA,  and asked me just to ring him for a chat.
So, I took a big breath and decided that I would!
I spoke to him at length and he said he could not see me for a chat unless I applied for the course.
I had nothing to lose, so I applied, telling hardly anyone about my secret! Secret in that I would barley tell a living breathing soul, so convinced was I, that I wouldn't get in, and it would be embarrassing having to tell everyone that I had been turned down!
And then I went for the interview ...
The Atrium is absolutely stunning! The facilities are out of this world. And as part of the Masters Degree in Drama,  I can also do a module in Film ... when I saw the film studio facilities I nearly fell over!
The Theatre spaces are AMAZING!!!

I was now fully at the golden gates of my dreams, my real in-depth, personal daren't tell anyone case I jinx it dreams.
Still, I told just a tiny handful of people about the interview experience. I swear I went to bed that night holding my breath!
And then, the next morning, it came!!! MY offer!
I am going to The Atrium in Cardiff in September to study the full time MA in Drama.
I quite simply can not believe it.
Thank you thank you thank you thankyou thankyou .... I want to type this a thousand million times .... thank you thank you thank you thankyou ...
Thank you for welcoming me to The Atrium to live my dream. I will now structure my life for the next year to give 110% of myself to the MA  Drama. I am more excited than a bottle of pop!

Funny thing is, I blog and write about my life on facebook almost every day. But this special personal thing has been mine now for nearly a month without me sharing it, because it was so special to me, that I wanted to cradle it in my arms and hold it close to myself before telling the world that dreams really do come true.

Additional Thanks to:

The Arts Council of Wales & Welsh Gov.t

To Suzanne Griffiths Rees: for supporting me with my Individual Mainline Grant
To Kate Strudwick for what must have been a glowing reference.
To Katie Marx at Bridgend College for building my confidence

Wednesday, 14 August 2013


Whilst in Minsk we had a bit of a mooch around.
Now then, I expect we were told by the translators what some of these things are, what their significance is ...

But sadly, I didn't take notes & I can't remember!
 ... This sculpture, for instance, was above the shopping centre ... that's all I can tell you!

And this is the Volunteer Team sat by ...
a fountain!

I love this sculpture of ... ?


This is my attempt at an arty shot 
in the City Centre

This magnificent sculpture is outside a church

This beautiful church ...
but I'm afraid I don't know what it's called!

Ah, now then, I do know that this is an Opera House/House of Culture and it is on one of the many bank notes of Belarus. It really is an awesome building but it was closed so we couldn't get in for a look

I took quite a few pictures of the very impressive sculptures outside this building ...

 Which, it transpired, was a zoo,  so I'm not going to put them up ...

This is a very famous writer ... I don't know who! But this sculpture was HUGE and took my breath away, sitting under the willow in the park.
What a wonderful tribute.
I'm starting to think this could be a quiz!
If you know who and where these pics were taken, please write and say!

This is part of a 2nd World War Memorial
in the underground and below is the picture taken above the memorial.

And this is a poster of some meerkats on the underground, which hasn't come out very well, but made me smile so I thought I'd share it.

The Little Bird Headstone Appeal

foto of Alesya & Val Cousins
When I got back home, I decided to put this post on my facebook wall ...
Friends, Can you help?
While I was in Belarus, Leaves-of Hope Director,  Val Cousins took us to the grave of a little girl
she had befriended.
Whilst Val was back in the UK, this little girl got appendicitis and was left ill.
It became peritonitis and she died.
When Val returned to visit her, her body had been left on a rubbish tip!
Val found her and fought for
a pauper's grave for the child.
This week, we cleared the overgrown grave because, if it is not looked after,
then her body will be removed
and the space allocated to someone else!
In order to stop this from happening,
we need to raise the money to buy a permanent gravestone for the child as she currently has a temporary wooden cross.
Val is finding out the cost
of a tombstone this week.
At the end of our trip, we left all our leftover cash with her to start the fund raising for the head stone, but I am hoping that you would also like to help Leaves of Hope to give this child the dignity she deserves in her own grave.
If you would like to help, please inbox me and I will give you the details of how you can make a donation. Thank you
And by the evening, the £520.00 we needed to do this was raised!
In fact, we went over the target and the funds are now being held by the charity to help with funeral costs of any other orphaned children who have the sad misfortune to die with no one to care about how or where they are buried.
Isn't it wonderful to know that facebook/the internet can be a tool where humans can do amazing things when they pull together.
Being buried, is a basic, human right, that we all take for granted.
Being undisturbed in our final resting place is something we expect as a given.
At least now, Alesya can rest in peace with our love. Thank you to everyone who made donations.
If you would like to make a donation please look at the Leaves of Hope website for .

A thank you from the British Ambassador at The Embassy

Leaves of Hope Charity Director
Val Cousins (Far Left)
 arranged for us to visit The British Ambassador
at The Embassy in Minsk
to thank us for our work
with the children at the orphanage.

The young people in the team were awarded certificates for their achievements as we had morning tea & cakes.

When I was growing up on the estate,
wondering what my life would be like,
 I could have never have imagined for one minute that I would be the kind of woman who supported young people to work in an orphanage, that I would make music with orphaned children in Belarus, that I would be thanked by a British Ambassador in the Embassy in Minsk!
I wonder, what Miss Brown the old Head Teacher at the Girls' School would make if it, having told me I was best suited to asking my Saturday job manager if I could carry on after school finished and work full time on his tills!  
Thank goodness I  continued to have the sense
not to listen to her!
Bless her, trapped in her middle class stereotypes!
Not that there's anything wrong with working on the tills, I quite enjoyed it, we use to have a giggle every Saturday, but it was the very fact that she expected nothing from me, because of who I was and where I lived, that drove me to go to college, university and to follow my heart rather than listen to my head ... or hers'!
And friends, there's a lesson in there, somewhere!

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Making Music at Zhodino Orphanage

Well, my friends, what can I say! I am back from Belarus where I volunteered in an orphanage for a second year, as a Musician in Residence. It was ... emotional! Here's a little montage of my photo's to give you an insight.

I thought I might give you a personal look into my work, thereby explaining the kinds of arts/music activities I do with the children, and why. Thus, by sharing these insights into my work, it may help you or simply give you food for thought, in terms of engaging groups of people via the arts.
You have to think on your feet, be able to respond to immediate need and  be able to communicate with limited language. I don't speak Russian and the children don't speak English, but having said that, many of the children have special needs that limit language and they were all aged 3-5 years this Summer, so even if we did speak the same language, we would have needed techniques to understand each other.

Before explaining the techniques I use, I would like to say that it was possible to bring music in this way because of the wonderful team of volunteers that I was working with. They were so willing to join in and have fun, to trust my judgement and take the lead themselves, my work as a Musician in Residence was made possible because of their generosity of spirit and with all my heart, I thank them, the translators, the insitu Russian staff team and Leaves of Hope.
Facial Expression
I find the easiest way to communicate is using my face. Facial expressions differ across cultures and countries and it is important to be aware of this, but in my experience at home and away, children respond very well to exaggerated facial expression. Not just happy, smiling faces, but excited, scared, anticipation, the whole range of emotion can tell your story.

 By being very animated facially and by using accentuated body language, you can feel the group almost come with you on a journey. Then when someone behaves in a way that is not appropriate for the group harmony, ie/ grabbing something off someone else!  using a blank expression, looking away, even closing eyes, elicits a response. A straight face has more impact when the children are use to it being animated.
I never use an angry face to shape behaviour. Angry is unpleasant, I merely withdraw my animated face. Very quickly, the children sit down and look for me to re-engage facially.
I may use an angry or scary face if it's part of the story I am telling with puppets, for instance, but not to reprimand. Reprimanding is not something I find appropriate or helpful. Negotiation, yes. A simple 'No' with a straight face seems to work for me!


Ground Rules
So how on earth can you set ground rules in a group of 3-5 year olds without a common language? Initially, on the first meeting, all the children wanted to grab everything in my possession, the instruments, the puppets etc, elbowing each other, pushing and even hitting each other to get what they want. Understandable! The excitement at seeing all these amazing, colourful noisy things, must be unimaginable! So my first workshops were ukulele & percussion to assist with learning: turn taking.


Having sat the children in front of me, I played ukulele for a  short time, then looked very excitably in my bag, pulled out an instrument. Everyone jumped up. I put it back in the bag.
They sat down.
I repeated this and after the 3rd time, everyone stayed seated ... and put their hands up urgently in the air.
I was very lucky that the charity I was with, Leaves of Hope, had provided us with gifted interpreters who specialise in working with children. I kept my instructions very simple and to the point.
'Who is going to play this?'
All the hands shot up!
I gave the tambourine to the quietest child, who sat with their hand up and then played ukulele again for a short time, before looking excitedly back into my bag.
'Oh, who is going to play this?' Lifting out another tambourine.
And so on and so forth until everyone had an instrument.


Having only one instrument at a time
During this process, a child with an instrument, might see one coming out of the bag that they like more than their own. In these instances, the child is offered the new instrument in exchange for the one in my hand. They have to swap, not have both.
In the first workshop, there was quite a long period of time where everyone was swapping through me. Perhaps every child changed their mind 4 or 5 times. But by the 2nd workshop, the children had very quickly learnt about having one at a time and waited for the instrument they wanted.

Now that the children had the hang of sharing instruments and space, we moved onto level 2 in turn taking. This is quite complex and you need to have an exciting thing to play!
I had a box of colourful chimes, which are always a winner and an African mbira, which I figured they would never have seen before and a child's pink ukulele.
We started with the chimes.

 I got the chimes out and played them, the children were entranced and pulled really close to me, sat cross legged on the floor. I sat on a little bench.
I said, 'Who would like to play this?'
All the hands shot up.
I replied, 'You will play 1st, 2nd ...' and counted all the children giving them a position in which it would be their turn. The translator told them in Russian.
Bless them. Their little faces were so excited, enthralled as they watched their friends play, one at a time and they waited for their turn. We clapped everyone when they had finished saying, 'Well done' in Russian.
Once everyone had their turn with the chimes, I excitedly looked in my bag.
'Oh, what is this!'
Again they all shuffled forward to see, but without pushing each other, in fact, giving each other space to have a look.

I played the mbira, and then once again, one at a time, the children sat next to me on the bench and had a go, very closely supervised as the mbira is not a toy for small children, but an instrument that needs supervision. I keep a label on it saying this, should any other adult decide to use it with the children.
So, by the time we got to the little pink ukulele, everyone knew the ground rules, and we were able to sit in the sunshine, listening to each other learn how to strum! Perfect!

Off course, there were times when we needed to step back a bit to re-establish the ground rules. Not by telling anyone off, just by going back to the first stage, as a reminder of  how you end up doing the thing that you want to do, without hitting anyone else over the head to do it!

Playing as a whole group.
So, now I had all 8 groups of children with a firm knowledge of the ground rules, having fun, playing musical instruments in turn taking, it was time to help them to play as a whole group.
We had been seated for about 15-20 minutes by this stage, it was beautiful weather and we were in outside classrooms that have little gardens.

My top tip is, use the facilities the environment presents you with. Once everyone had an instrument they were happy with and they were playing, we made a train where everyone followed me out into the garden area in a line.
I would pause on the off beat rhythm and shout HEY!
The children joined in.

Now, as a whole group, the children are dancing along in a line, playing their instruments, responding to the timing, as  a whole group instead of as an individual.

Becoming a leader
Now was a great time to invite the children to lead the train.
'Who would like to be the leader?'
Knowing the ground rules, everyone is assured that they will have a turn and so happily follows the new child leader, waiting their turn when they can lead the group rather than being disappointed that they were not chosen to lead.

Extending leadership
All of the children wanted to take part in leading the train, even the very smallest, the very weakest, and it made my heart smile like it never has before, watching them look back at everyone following them. I swear they seemed to grow a little taller in the knowledge that they were, for this short time, 'in charge' which I doubt they get much chance to do in an orphanage.
But as an arts facilitator, I am always looking for the next small step forward for the group. This is where the puppets came in very useful indeed!
My friend Sam Collins and her daughter Amie, recently kindly gave me their large collection of puppets, and I took the finger puppets in a hat they had given me. A tall Cat in the Hat type hat.
I wore the hat and the children had no idea it was full of puppets.

I slowly took it off, staring incredulously into the hat, then looking at the children as if to say, you will never believe what is inside this hat. They were on the edge of their seats!
I invited them to put their hand in the hat and pull out a puppet. 
I had taken with me a small portable finger puppet theatre which I had picked up on ebay and I put on a short puppet show for the children. Holding up their chosen puppets I said,
'What is her name?' The children shouted out the names for the puppet characters.
'What happens to them?' The children put up their hands and said what happened.
Once we had finished the puppet show ... which was very short to keep within their attention: about 5 mins, I invited the children themselves, to come and tell the story with the puppets in the little puppet theatre.

I stood back and watched as a group of seated 4 year olds, watched 2 of their friends at a time, putting on a little finger puppet show and for a moment I thought I would burst into tears. Were these really the same children that were pushing each other out of the way, only the day before?
Reading the group
When we train as young facilitators/teachers, we are taught to have our aims and objectives written on our flip chart, to plan our lessons and workshops and have everything we need. To change the environment to fit the needs. Oh, we're so organised that any assessor can measure us and tick every box needed to prove we're good at what we do!
Then 25 years later we find ourselves in a class of 3-5 year olds in Belarus who have had enough and just want to run around and care very little for our plans & flip charts!
And this is when all of those 25 years of experience kick in. This is when every flip chart you ever presented, every skill you ever learnt, every trick in your book rushes to aid you!
You do need to be prepared, but prepared for every eventuality. This is different to lesson planning in some ways, it is life planning!
So, when I was called to come to the group, I could see immediately that sitting down and playing instruments was not what they wanted to do. They had just been making fairy wings when I arrived and were charging around bumping into each other and shouting. Great! This behaviour becomes your resource, your lead!
If the children want to run around and make a noise, make this your starting point in terms of engaging them, so that you can shape the behaviour towards something that is appropriate, fun and that you are able to reward. I find that the easiest way to engage people, is to give them what they want!
I grabbed my drum and started dancing like a fairy (which is not so easy at 48 years old!) lol!

Follow Me! Follow ME! I sang in a loud voice, asking the translator to repeat after me in Russian.
Within minutes all the little fairies were dancing in a line behind me.

We sang Lalalalala!!! as loud as we could and once they were singing this rather than random shouting, I turned and made a game out of singing and dancing as if we had to be very quiet ... and then very loud (which made them laugh) and then vey quiet ...
Once they were now under the fairy spell, I asked them who would like to lead the fairy line and hey presto! ... we had, without them noticing, fallen back into the ground rules.
We brought the line into a group and I stood at the front doing some tai chi moves which are great for grounding.

I don't really know Tai chi if I'm honest, but I have worked with Teena Gould, who led Tai Chi for me at The Story Telling Trail, of which I am Creative Director at The National Botanic Garden of Wales. I have also worked with Teena at Kidwelly Castle with a group of 50 children from Bigyn Primary School, and she taught me some basic moves.
The children copied me. I then asked if one of the children would come out front to replace me. Once a child was leading the movements, I played the chimes.
I stopped them, and asked if one of the children would like to play the chimes.
The children then took it turns to lead the movements and the chimes, while I stood out front joining in.

 In this moment, I really did have a tear and I am moved even to write about it.
To watch as the children played music and led each other in movement, on a sunny day in the garden outside their little outdoors classroom, we could have been 100 miles away from the orphanage, we were in a magical place where love is freely given between humans as a right.
But we were not 100 miles away from the orphanage and these beautiful children are still there.
We are not.
Leaves of Hope make trips throughout the year for volunteers to go and help make a difference to the children's lives. Sometimes to renovate classrooms, to paint playgrounds, to improve the environment, to do staff training with the orphanage team, to bring joy to the children.
I can not thank Val Cousins and her team of dedicated people behind the scenes enough,  for making it possible for people like me and you to give just a little of ourselves to brighten up the life of a child.
If you would like more details of visit: