TURNING nearly 100 school children into performers fit for Sheffield’s most revered theatre stage isn’t everyone’s idea of fun.
But there’s no disguising the laid-back enthusiasm of acclaimed UK jazz singer Cleveland Watkiss ahead of tonight’s Crucible performance of Shadowball.
“I always have fun,” he says of the jazz opera, in which he is surrounded by kids from Netherthorpe and Springfield schools.
“I’ve done this since the project’s inception three years ago. Because of the nature of it it’s different every time for me; different schools, different kids, different opportunities and challenges. It’s always fresh.
“When I’m working with a band in the jazz context it’s about the all, not necessarily about myself, it’s about that democratic balance, getting the elements sounding right.
“That’s what’s great about jazz. When it’s done correctly it’s a great tool for teaching democracy and interplay.”
Cleveland is the only adult in the cast, playing pitcher Satchel Paige in a story written by fellow jazz man Julian Joseph and Mike Phillips about the Negro League baseball players excluded from the Major Leagues. Their talent went unacknowledged while jazz legends like Cab Calloway found stardom. Joseph has devised a swinging score inspired by the era of Ellington and Armstrong,
“Imagine. I’m a big kid among these kids,” he says. “Leeroy Satchel Paige was a really interesting character because he had a unique style – a very unorthodox way of throwing the ball – but he was also quite a musical character. He sang and played an instrument. He was a loud and robust personality.
“And Shadowball was an amazing game where these black players couldn’t play in the National League because of the racial dynamics at the time so developed their own game, playing with an imaginary ball.”
While the cast is largely drawn from ethnic minority backgrounds, Cleveland is swift to highlight the production’s universal relevance.
“This is a piece of history which is untold. History is all of us and belongs to everybody, but Shadowball also introduces you to a sport that I didn’t necessarily know before I did this project.
“It teaches you about those dynamics and how you can strive to overcome them through balance and equality and to elements that will help you develop as a human being. They’re playing as a team. It’s for everyone, not privileged or underprivileged, it’s a story for everyone.”
Just from our brief dip into rehearsals, it is clear enthusiasm isn’t in short supply from either the young cast or their adult coaches. All hope the primary school participants soak up some of the underlying messages.
“It’s about making them aware of stuff that goes on in society,” says Cleveland. “If you’re isolated from the world and different communities it presents a challenge for you – ‘he or she doesn’t do it the way I do it, so it must be wrong’ as opposed to ‘wow, that’s a different perspective’.
“I had one of the kids pay me the best compliment I’ve had in my career here. He asked me to sing on my first day here and he said ‘it sounds like life’ or ‘being born’.
“If me being here is bringing those kinds of thoughts and inspiring kids in that way I will continue to do this. It’s important to share and give back especially if it helps them deal with the challenges of life.”
As for helping the kids through first night nerves? “What are nerves? Energy... you just learn how to direct that energy in the right way. The nerves thing becomes a sort of fuel for getting me into character and the spirit of the play.”