Jazz the ticket to teach young cast all about baseball’s untold story

Springfield School: Rehearsals for their jazz opera
Springfield School: Rehearsals for their jazz opera
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AFTER watching just 15 minutes of rehearsals for baseball-themed jazz opera Shadowball, it is easy to feel a little sympathy for director Freya Wynn-Jones.

“You have to have more energy than the kids and sometimes that’s incredibly hard,” she says.

But then the bubbly director is already well acquainted with the piece that will burst from the Crucible stage a week today.

The cast features 95 youngsters, aged between nine and 11, from Sheffield’s Netherthorpe and Springfield primary schools, with acclaimed British jazz singer Cleveland Watkiss playing the central role of baseball player Satchel Paige.

Written by fellow jazz man Julian Joseph and Mike Phillips, Shadowball tells the story of Negro League baseball players excluded from the Major Leagues.

Their talent went unacknowledged while iconic jazz legends like Cab Calloway found stardom by defining a new art form. Joseph has devised a swinging score inspired by the era of Ellington and Armstrong,

“The opera is telling a story through song and music. That’s how it’s delivered, using jazz music as the core,” says Freya. “These guys will have to hold their own against the band although they and Julian will be sensitive to the group,responding to the sound and emotions they will be conveying.

“Different melodies and lead ins are played on different instruments so the children suddenly have to tune their ear in to it all. When the band comes in it’s really hard to stop some just dancing; some absolutely love music and the moment the band comes in, even though they’re meant to be baseball players, you see the shoulders going.”

In a groundbreaking education project by Hackney Music Development Trust, Freya began seeking out her latest cast in June via a workshop.

“It’s not an audition. So often today young people are terrified it’s going to be a panel like X Factor.

We just look out for the kids really enjoying themselves or who have that spark. We do some slow motion acting, look for kids who do something different, use their imagination.

“I’ve got different techniques to keep group control, different signals, changing topic a lot, but you don’t want to reign it in too much because you don’t want to lose it for the performance. It’s that kind of energy that will make their performance exhilarating.”

As well as performing, the cast discover the historical context and themes of the story through specially-designed lesson plans and activities, including six weeks of baseball training. The aim is to inspire confidence, teamwork and teach a range of performance and sporting skills in a professional environment.

“Doing theatre, performing to music, builds on all those social community skills because you’re rehearsing together, listening to each other and creating something as one entity.

“We try and get the idea across that you’re forming a company and supporting each other. That has a knock on effect to life – learning those social skills and supporting other people.

“The piece talks about discrimination and an abuse of power and we do try to tackle that head on when we’re teaching because the music is delivered in a historically accurate way. We need the group to understand and teaching them a song... they want to know why someone would be that mean and they are quite shocked.

“The first time I did this project I was a bit worried about how much I talked about that issue in Hackney. Then I saw some racism. Thank goodness most of these children haven’t experienced that, but them knowing how to deal with it is important.

 “It’s key to realise what is age appropriate, dealing with it sensitively. We talk more about certain people having power and they don’t want to let go of it and why that causes differences.”