The Story of Chickenshed in the UK
In 1974, musician and composer Jo Collins met teacher and director Mary Ward. Sharing a belief that everyone should be able to perform and create, they set up a theatre company. Initially based in local church halls, they asked local benefactor and landowner (and fan!) Lady Elizabeth Byng if there might be a space free on her property for the company to use as its base – and history was made with the kind offer of a disused chicken shed!
The company grew as more and more members began to join, buying in to the collective passion and enthusiasm for the power of community theatre. And then, in the early 1980s, a young boy with cerebral palsy took part in a Chickenshed production. “If we’re open to everyone,” asked Chickenshed’s teenage members, “then why is there no-one else like him?”
Mary and Jo saw that the way forward for Chickenshed must be one of true inclusion, and by embracing this ethos wholeheartedly the next phase of Chickenshed’s development began.
Mary and Jo were joined by John Bull, who became Chickenshed’s first Managing Director, and whose pioneering work on integration took Chickenshed to the next level: Jo, Mary and John had created the world’s first truly inclusive theatre company.
Soon Chickenshed was going from strength to strength with record contracts, CDs, West End shows, TV spots, high-profile trustees such as Dame Judi Dench and Sir Trevor Nunn. But more – so much more – was yet to come.
In the late eighties, Chickenshed was lucky enough to meet Lord and Lady Rayne – and Lady Rayne became president of the company. Thanks to her Chickenshed got a very special patron indeed: Princess Diana, whose zest for Chickenshed’s message of hope shone through in spectacular fashion.
The next big step came in the early nineties, when Lord and Lady Rayne continued to work tirelessly to create a permanent home for the company. Their efforts finally paid off in 1994 when Chickenshed was able to move into its own purpose-built theatre in Southgate, North London.
From a home of their own Chickenshed embarked on national tours, delighting audiences of over 5000 and showing the entire nation what it meant to be inclusive.
In 1997, Chickenshed saw the vital need to expand its ground-breaking inclusive model into the field of education, beginning with BTEC courses, followed by Foundation Degrees, and culminating in the ability to deliver full Bachelor of Arts Degree courses.
In 2011, Chickenshed launched its Kensington & Chelsea branch to expand the company’s ability to offer the same life-changing opportunities in an area of London with the widest disparity between life chances and choices.
Mary and Jo have received much acclaim for their work in creating Chickenshed, including two MBEs, appearances on This Is Your Life, Creative Briton Awards, Snowdon Awards, Honorary Doctorates… but the biggest reward comes in seeing what Chickenshed has become.
Now a major force for change, Chickenshed continues to grow. Many of those early Chickenshed travellers remain and many have moved on, leaving a wonderful legacy but all taking with them the belief in the power of inclusion to change the world for the better.
And – of course – many more have joined along the way. Each and every one of them – member, supporter, performer, friend – is a testament to Chickenshed’s artistic and social impact. Lives have changed. Lives will still be changed. Chickenshed will keep shining the spotlight on what really matters. Everyone.