Ruth M Johnson

“It might take lots of footsteps…”

Blue Cabin Associate Artist, Ruth Mary Johnson, explains how working with a group of young people, aged eight to 21, resulted in a truly collaborative film-making experience.

What happens when a young person voices an idea, is really heard by staff working with them who, in turn, reach out to an organisation who can help make this idea a reality? The answer: The Studio of the Fostered Heroes; a collaboration between young people and staff involved in the Redcar and Cleveland Children in Care Council, and Blue Cabin.

I sometimes feel that the word “collaboration” is over-used, or is sometimes wrongly attributed to a process where there is a desire to collaborate, but it doesn’t always happen in its truest form. The dictionary defines collaboration as, “the action of working with someone to produce something,” the word with really shines through. With implies partnership, conversation, and an equality in decision-making at every step of the journey of making something together. Reflecting on the process taken by all the partners in making the Studio of Fostered Heroes, this togetherness or “with-ness” really does shine through is all the footsteps it took from everyone involved to make it happen.

Collaboration, in its truest form, is hard. How do you ensure that everyone has an equal voice in the shaping of something? How do you allow opportunities for individual leadership within the ebb and flow of the process and how do you build a sense of teamship? It is here where I think that all the adults in the process have really learned from the young people involved in the project.

We often ask young people to step out of their comfort zones, whether that is by taking part in an activity that might be new to them or trying out a new skill or artform. Yet, as adults, we rarely ask this of ourselves. We have our designated role descriptions, timelines, budgets and other limitations that can prevent us from veering out of our limited lanes. But here, in The Studio of the Fostered Heroes, the young people, with their enthusiasm to drive ideas and their willingness to try stuff out, encouraged the grown ups to think beyond the limitations we often put ourselves in.

In direct response to an idea from a young person involved in the Children in Care Council, The Studio of the Fostered Heroes was set up and shaped with a group of 8-21 year old young people alongside superstar graphic designer and Blue Cabin Associate Artist Nic Golightly. This idea to create something that would help people – teachers, peers, corporate parents and the world – really understand the experience of being in foster care was the first footstep on this creative path. Through working with Nic, the group named the Studio, decided on how they wanted to work and what they wanted to make.

I came into this project after the Studio had already been set up and the group decided they would like to work with a writer and a filmmaker, so the wondrous Laura Degnan was also brought on board. In her first session, the group experimented with stop-frame animation to detail their individual journeys in the care system. I was sent these snippets of film prior to meeting the group and the idea of maps, journeys and footsteps were really present, alongside a beautiful seed for all the script that was to follow:

“It might take lots of footsteps to work your way to love.”

This one sentence, so powerful in its articulation, really fired the engine of what was to come. In my first of two sessions with the group, we explored the idea of feet; where our feet had been, where we want them to go, what gets in the way of getting where we want to be and what things might help us on our journey. The floor was covered in brightly coloured footsteps; a map of vocabulary that would become the script. In the following session we read through these words and the group were impressed with their script but felt there was more to be said. And that is what they did. Each young person took to the mic and their voices sang out loud! Everyone, and especially the quieter members of the group, spoke so confidently and powerfully about their own and shared experiences. It was a privilege to be in that cool, air-conditioned room at TunedIn in August, and not just because it was the hottest day of the year! The young people felt safe to share, confident to lead the discussion and assured in what they wanted their film to say. In this session we all felt a shift change; the volume had been turned up to 11 and these voices needed to be heard!

If we are going to truly collaborate and co-create with young people then we really need to be ready to adapt our ways of working and respond in ways that we might not imagine. It was clear that the initial timetable for producing the film could work but it might not give enough time to really allow for the full potential of what the Studio of Fostered Heroes wanted to say. Here is where the trusting collaboration between staff from Redcar and Cleveland Council and Blue Cabin responded to the needs of the project to expand, having seen the value in how the process was working and what the potential outcome could be. An example of how the confidence, enthusiasm and resilience of the young people spread across the whole adult team, allowing for the process to see where the footsteps would take the final destination.

This confidence had a profound effect on me and other members of staff working on the project, encouraging us to take footsteps outside our usual paths, with council staff being encouraged by the young people to become visual artists and prop and scenery makers in a shared endeavor to bring the words and ideas to life. Buoyed by the Studio, I found myself working with the young people to create Foley sounds (reproductions of everyday sounds) for the film in the amazing recording studio at TunedIn. After my time performing as a professional pigeon in my acting days, I never thought I would again be waving rubber gloves around to make bird wings! But there we all were, hands in shoes, walking in lentils, wobbling wobble boards, making heartbeats out of t-shirts and plane sounds out of our mouth trumpets!

But that’s how true collaboration works: a thought, a sentence, a doodle, an idea is gifted to the group and then built upon by the entire team, sharing their skills and trying out new ones, checking in with each other all the way along the route to make sure the ideas are being looked after.

The final film took a lot of footsteps to find its way into being but these footsteps were taken with each other. And it all started with one young person’s sentence about footsteps. This idea was able to grow in a process where staff and young people walked together as artists, making their mark on the map created by The Studio of the Fostered Heroes, and broadcasting to the world what these brilliantly talented young artists want you to know.

There are so many more examples of creative collaboration to be shared from this project and you will be able to hear more about it in a future blog from filmmaker, Laura Degnan.

There is also a brilliant podcast with Redcar and Cleveland’s Wendy Medd and Nic Golightly that goes into great detail about the set up of the project and how much care was taken by the young people to establish how the Studio would work. You can listen to the podcast here.


Find out more about The Studio of the Fostered Heroes here.