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Introduction – a short History of Peace Child (1999)

The story of Peace Child begins in 1978. Former Ambassador, James George, was visiting his friend Bernard Benson, a writer whose books use the device of a story-teller telling simple stories to children to put across complex ideas. He suggested to Benson that he write a story of  how Peace came to the world: it would be set in the future in a world already at peace. The story-teller would then explain how it came about – and how children helped. Inspired, Benson wrote The Peace Book in a matter of days. The following year, it came out in France and became an instant phenomenon. It was endorsed by the Pope, the Archbishop of  Canterbury,  President Anwar Sadat and a galaxy of other stars and personalities. Peter Ustinov gave a quote for the cover of the  English language edition.

Benson started looking for ways to launch it in the Britain.  Michael and Eirwen Harbottle had seen David Gordon’s magnificent musical oratorio, Alpha Omega, in Coventry Cathedral. It too was about Peace so when Bernard gave Michael a copy of his Peace Book, the Harbottles immediately started wondering if it could be married to David’s music. The Harbottles organised a dinner party attended by Peter Ustinov, Gordon, Benson and the UK Publisher of the Peace Book. Benson was moved to tears by Alpha Omega. Gordon was similarly moved by the Peace Book. At that point both knew that their works should be linked. But how?

The Harbottles daughter, Rosey, was in the theatre and her husband, David Woollcombe,  was a writer and theatre director. When David Gordon + his wife and mother-in law demanded that Woollcombe help out with a “Peace Musical”, something struck  a  chord.  One  morning  before work, he dashed off a 13-page treatment  which  he called  “Peace Child”, taking  the bare bones of the Peace Book story and placing it in  the  middle of  David’s  powerful  oratorio. Within  a  matter of days, funds were raised and a full-scale “Celebration of  Peace” was  to be  produced  by Rosey and David at the Royal Albert Hall as the climax of Disarmament Week, October 30th 1981.

The London Premiere

Peace Child was written at the Benson chateau in the Dordogne, a magical place which Benson had given refuge to Tibetan Buddhist Lamas. Surrounded by mystical people in saffron robes, Gordon wrote “Peace Day” and “Mr President”; other songs were drawn from Alpha Omega and his back catalogue. The script was completed and cast from North London kids+ a few from Embassies. Then a strange thing happened: as David Woollcombe drove the kids home from rehearsals, they talked about the issues raised in the show – nuclear war, Russians, the environment. As they chatted, Woollcombe realised that their jokes and dialogue was much more real than the dialogue he had scripted for them in the show. So at night, he would creep back to his study and type out new pages of script, incorporating the lines he’d over-heard in the back seat. When the kids read their new lines, they· re marked, “Hey- I said that!” They were pleased that their ideas and jokes would be in the show: it gave them ownership of the message and it made the whole thing seem more real for them. When they performed eventually, they felt good about using the platform of Peace Child to communicate their ideas to their peers and adults in the audience.

The Peace Child London premiere was an amazing success: few producers have the gall to launch a new musical at a venue like the Royal Albert Hall but the audience clearly loved it. One, arriving late, said that “Stepping into the hall was like diving into a glass overflowing with joyful champagne!”

The US Premiere

The US Premiere was an even more magical, serendipitous series. of coincidences than the London launch. American author, Jerry Jampolski, heard about Peace Child in Australia and determined to go to England  to meet its author. Reading the script, agreed to organise the publication of the Peace Book in the USA and arrange a performance of Peace Child in Washington DC. Jampolski introduced Woollcombe to John Marks at a party in Washington. Marks had just started the organisation that would become Search for Common Ground. Over a $7.95 Chinese meal which Marks and Woollcombe carefully shared between them, the $100,000 Washington premiere was arranged at the prestigious Kennedy Centre.

A brilliant African American boy, Marco Clarke, was cast as the lead boy; Bridget Condon from the Maryland suburbs was cast as the Russian girl. Immediately, it was apparent that the concerns of the US cast were different from those of the UK one. So again, it was necessary to re­ write the script, and  again, the kids_ came up with much the best ideas, fashioning  their characters, shaping the scenes, choosing an ending – with Woollcombe stepping in to support and advise.

Perhaps the greatest miracle was that the show came together at all: Susannah York repeated her role as the Story-teller but had to visit a dentist on the day of  the show. She missed the dress rehearsal and arrived with rampant tooth-ache. The Dress Rehearsal itself was total chaos:  a tired stage manager said at the end, “Seeing this show come off so well after a dress rehearsal that terrible is the best reason I ever had to believe in God.” The audience loved it – and the cast felt well pleased. But the right-wing Washington press attacked the show as dangerous propaganda for daring to recommend reconciliation between Russia and the United States: “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings comes dangerous nonsense!” Republican Congressman, Stan Parris, wrote into the Congressional Record that Peace Child was a danger to American values and should not be performed in American schools.

Check it out in this First Introductory Video that draws together footage from the Royal Albert Hall, the Kennedy Center and the Teens Onstage show – one of the first community theatre groups to use the Study Guide.

The Peace Child Study Guide

It was the best publicity we could have hoped for. After a second performance at New York’s Riverside Church, the Peace Child Study Guide for Schools was published. This showed teachers and youth theatre directors how to do what became known as “the Peace Child process”

-getting young people to improvise around their concerns about nuclear war and  a secure future, to develop their own version of the play.

About 6,000 copies of the Study Guide were sold resulting in some 5,000 community performances of the play across the USA. Some were large scale shows, involving students from across the whole spectrum of races and economic groupings; some were small scale – a few songs and scenes performed during church services or during parents evenings at schools. Some were straight school shows with teachers doing Peace Child instead of Bye-Bye Birdie. Others were special events involving staff and students, with, on one famous occasion, the whole school com­ munities, including the principal playing the US President! Some used top professional directors and choreographers. Others were produced and directed by students themselves. All got good press and TV coverage and sensitised their communities to the inevitable end of the Cold War. 

Breakthrough: the 1986 US-Soviet Peace Child Tour

David Woollcombe started to visit the Soviet Union in 1984 to try to get permission for a joint US-Soviet performance of Peace Child. A year later, an occasion offered itself during the massive Moscow Youth Festival. It was a wonderful moment when Soviet and American kids walked out on the same stage in this story of Soviet American children ending the Cold War. It was an even better moment a year later when, after 23 visits to Moscow by Woollcombe, visas were issued to Soviet Children to travel to the USA to do joint performances of the show in 12 cities around the USA. This was, in fact, the first Soviet-American exchange programme ever – exactly as the original play had prophesied. Reality imitated art in a most satisfactory way. One reason that Peace Child was in a position to do this was that they had done a most popular TV programme reuniting the 1985 cast in a satellite TV show in memory of the young American Peace Ambassador, Samantha Smith. It was shown on PBS in the USA on Christmas Day and repeated several times on Soviet State TV.

Though it was three years until the Berlin Wall came down and the Cold War was officially declared to be over, Woollcombe reckoned the Soviet Project to be done. He move Peace Child on to other things. He supported the setting up of a Peace Child in the Middle East – where Yael Drouyanov presided over an ever-increasing number of Peace Child workshops where Arab and Israeli children took a year of seminars and improvisations _ before even starting to rehearse a play. A Central American tour was organised, uniting children from seven countries of the region. There was a tour of Poland bringing together US, Soviet and Polish children, and an inter­ national tour of the USA looking at environmental issues through the prism of the Chernobyl dis­ aster. Through this period, Peace Child was working more and more closely with the United Nations, with performances in  the UN gardens, participation  in  the UN Peace Day ceremony, and, in 1989, a satellite “State of the Planet” broadcast linking the USSR, Costa Rica and the USA via satellite ‘Space Bridges’.

Meanwhile, the US Peace Child office had discovered a lucrative trade in taking US kids to· the USSR to do Peace Child shows with Soviet kids – working with their former enemies in a fun and unusual summer camp experience. Between 1986 -1991, Peace Child took about 1,000 youth back and forth on youth exchanges, reaching audiences of tens of thousands across both countries. With a healthy cash flow in place, and the prospect of global expansion from a strong US base, the Woollcombes felt it was time to leave and return to Europe, taking up the offer of free office space in a new social venture in the Netherlands.

Europe and books

The Earth Child show(called “The Bridge” in the US) which had been created to address environmental issues was never going to be as dramatic as the original  with its songs about nuclear war and  its Romeo  and  Juliet sub-plot. The issue were more complex  and, when UNICEF and UNEP issued a book on it for children, our members grabbed it eagerly. They were hugely disappointed: the book focussed on how toxins in the environment affected children more than adults – there was almost nothing about the “State of the World’s Environment” which the subtitle promised.  During the preparations for the World Summit for Children, the  heads of UNEP and UNICEF asked our young members what they felt about it.  They had  to be honest: “We want a book that tells us exactly what is going on about the environment  in a way that we  can understand. This book is not it.” Dr Noel Brown of UNEP told them that the UN could never write the kind of book that they wanted: they should write it themselves.

Woollcombe thought: kids write the plays. Why should they not  write and  illustrate books? So we circulated our  by now expanded  membership  to ask  them: “If you went to a library and found a book that contained absolutely everything  that you ever wanted  to know about the environment, what would it have in it? – what questions would it answer?” From the responses, a list of questions was compiled, and the kids went out to put them to famous environmental experts around the world. 30 of them then came together in Prague under the inspired leadership of the  First Peace Child youth intern, Analia Penchaszadeh,  to create Peace Child’s first book, the Children’s State of  the Planet Handbook. It was Peace Child’s official offering to the Rio Earth Summit, and it almost sold out  during the conference. The UN  were most impressed by it – but when Woollcombe proudly presented  it to Noel Brown, De turned to him and said, “Very good – but now I have another job for you. Make a children’s version of this… ” – He handed him a copy of Agenda 2L

An  expanded  network  of  young  people  created  the  Children’s  Edition  of  Agenda  21, Rescue Mission :  Planet  Earth.  It  was  an  astounding  success  –  320,000  copies  were  sold  around the world in 18  different  languages.  Based  on  that  success,  the  United  Nations  commissioned Peace Child to prepare a Children’s History of the United Nations for the UN 50th Anniversary in 1995. Peace Child encountered some problems with this as the UN stepped in at a late stage and demanded that each page be censored by a UN Lawyer. For an to empower children, this was a most disempowering move: the young people started to self-censor them­ selves, crippling some of the most creative sections of the book. It was a success none-the-less – and another UN body supported Peace Child to prepare an Agenda 21 for Cyprus. Because they could not meet in Cyprus, this was prepared by young Turkish and Greek Cypriots at the new Peace Child International Centre in Buntingford, England.

  Towards the Millennium – a new vision, a new centre and a new play

If the early years of Peace Child  had  been  about bridging  the gap between  East and  West, the present and future challenge for the  organisation  is  about  bridging  the  much  wider  gulf between North and South. To fill in  the  rest  of  the  story,  the Peace Child  International  Network had now grown to embrace  some 500  youth  eco-groups  in 120  countries  around  the  world.  Many of them under-took our early efforts in Sustainable Development  Education  using  Youth Sustainability Indicator Packs. Reports were presented to the UN CSD meetings in 1996  and  ’97, where upon, 8 of the 9 governments that had supported the programme suddenly, without  explanation, stopped their funding. Given that our groups in the South . could see the centrality of education for sustainability in the education of the rising generation, they refused to surrender the programme. Funds were raised for the setting up of Internet Cafes which would  double  as sustainable development training centres, earning income from  the sale of  coffee and  internet  time to pay for the costs of the educational programme. In this way, “dependency,” the bugbear of all North-South development programmes, would be avoided.

Young people wrote and performed the plays; young people now write and edit all our books. Why not, we thought, empower them to run the organisation. So we searched around and found a big old house near London with a stable yard that could serve as a residential hostel where young people from our groups around the world could come and  work together  in a kind of Youth United Nations. The hostel, naturally, was designed and  mostly built by young people – a group of exceptionally talented young architects from the Czech Republic led by Jiri Vaculik. Now, generally ten young people, half from Europe, half from elsewhere, live and work at the White House headquarters, enabling us to put out material in English, French and Spanish ­ often more languages, and serve our network around the world from a series of Regional Desks.

The challenge for us now is to raise sufficient funds to enable young entrepreneurs in the developing world to have a ready source of investment capital to start up businesses which are, themselves, going to be sustainable. It 1s all but impossible for young people to navigate the labyrinth of preparing funding  proposals  for large organisations  like the European Union or other government or private funding agencies. Such funds are not, like Peace Child, into the empowerment of young people. So we see Peace Child becoming a buffer agency between these big agencies and young people facilitating the release of that enormous reservoir of energy and idealism that is stored up in young· people. It will support and monitor young people’s development projects. It will promote North-South youth partnerships for development. In this way, the skills of young people learn in the North can be communicated to youth in the South, and some­ thing of the indigenous cultures of the South – themselves far more sustainable than those developed in the Industrial North – can be communicated between the generations.

Peace Child 2000 reflects this new direction. Peace cannot be sustained without justice.

Justice requires development and no development of any kind can happen without peace. So the children of Peace Child 2000 recognise that there has to be an enormous sea change in all values all at once –  which is reflected  in  the Queen song we added for the Hague performance, “We want it all and we want it now!” It is the old cry for revolution – but put in an enormously practical and sensible way. When the children take over the Security Council at the end of the play, they sort out in five minutes what governments through their egoes and so called special interests have failed to sort out in five years. Time and again, we read: “We have the solutions – all that is needed is the political will to implement them.” Young people have that political will.

They have no constraints and, in the magic of the theatre, they can pretend that they will be realised. But, as we have learned in 20 years of doing Peace Child, the magic spreads beyond the theatre: the solutions worked out on the stage of Peace Child performances becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

So take care as you adapt and stitch your ideas into the tapestry that is Peace Child. As

Othello said of a famous handkerchief: “There’s magic in the weave of it…” What you present on stage can become the reality you will be living a few years from now.