Introducing the Client and the Commission
“Now in Mantle of the Expert, one of the most important things is to introduce the client, and the feeling elements of it.” (Dorothy Heathcote)
In Mantle, at a certain point, a fictional client/commission is introduced. For example: a Year 5 class was running a travel agency. They received a commission from the Indian Government, to submit a bid to run new airline routes to cities in India.
The “commission coming in," Dorothy says, "then gets into the curriculum the teacher wants”. In this example, the curriculum topic was India. To fulfil the commission, they had to research into life in India, and the cities in question.
The commission is usually introduced through a letter, which is composed by the teacher, so it establishes the “mandatory” curriculum elements which he/she wants to teach. The letter also creates the "absent presence" of the "Other": the client. Throughout the work, "we carry our 'client' in our heads: This is the future audience to whom we must communicate and demonstrate clearly, and face their questions." (1) This generates what Dorothy called a “productive tension”: an awareness of both the needs of the client, and the responsibility of the undertaking.
It's best to make the letter seem as if it is coming from a real person - who maybe has a personal reason for wanting the job to be done. This will increase the class's investment in the commission, and introduce the "feeling" element - it isn't simply a regular job order from another company.
It's important to be clear with the class that the commission and client are not real. Otherwise they will feel cheated if they think it is real and then find out it isn't. But you can simply say to the class, "Of course, I wrote the letter myself. But can we agree that this is the kind of letter we might receive as a company?"
The advantage of having a fictional "client" is that the class do not feel they are doing the work for "teacher" - they are doing it for their company. They have a sense of ownership over their work. When the "commission" letter arrives, the teacher can also appear ignorant , rather than the one who already knows all the answers: "I don't know anything about the needs of partially sighted people, do you...?" This is empowering for the class: it puts more responsibility on to them, to determine what they need to do, and how they can find out what they need to know.
“The House Mr. Strutt Made”: Dorothy introduces a Mantle Commission
At a teacher training event for the Mantle Network in 2009, Dorothy explained how she set up a Mantle for different age groups in the Herbert Strutt School in Belper, Derbyshire.
My job was given to me by the Head, who said, “This school that you're standing in was built in 1810, by Mr. Strutt, who owned one of the first silk mills in the world. And he decided to educate the children of his workers.
"And we're going to be leaving this building to go to a very new school. And what we'd like the children, before they move out, to look at is the very structure of this school, that has served since 1810.
"I want them” (he said) “to know that men’s bodies lifted all these stones, sawed these timbers, had no electric tools, carved these stones, built brick by brick, and died young, a lot of them.”
With a class of 8-year olds, Dorothy chose to set up an enterprise “that does building structures” and specialises “in fire-damaged buildings or flood-damaged buildings; buildings that are falling apart”. At a certain point, a commission letter arrived from a client, “Sculpture Works Ltd.” It began: “It has come to our notice that you specialise in examining building structure, with a particular viewpoint.” It continued (and “this is the drama”, Dorothy observed):
"We are hoping with your experience you will be able to uncover various levels in the life of a building including the following voices:
1. The voices of the materials, e.g. The Stone and cast Iron
2. The Voices of those who laboured to turn those materials
3. The voices of those people who have used the building to the purpose Mr. Strutt had in mind at its original inception.”
[The building in question was the very school which the children were in.]
So in my mind, voices of bricks, voices of people lifting, and so on, is going to be at the heart of the work these eight-year olds will do. So they're not staring at, “How big is a room?” but [thinking about], what went on; the children learning here. “What happens to this desk, when there’s a voice beside it? What about the person that built the desk?” And so on.
She worked differently with the class of 6-year olds. In this case, she introduced the client not through a letter but through a teacher-in-role as Mr Strutt.
The children arranged him in costume, so he could represent Mr Strutt as a “portrait” (modelled on an actual portrait hanging in the school). Then when the “portrait” was ready the children spoke to him, and asked, “What is it you've come for?”
And this is what he says: “I have a mind to build a place where little children, boys and girls, will learn to read, know their letters and number, and count money, and write. This is what I wish.” So he says, “I have asked my clerk to tell you what I wish you to do today.”
A poem was introduced, loosely based on “The House that Jack Built”:
This is the school Mr Strutt made
First dreamed in his head
And made it to happen
By planners and workers
Who strove with their hands
And muscles and backs
And those of great horses
Who pulled with a will
To make this fine school Mr Strutt built.
The class adored Mr Strutt. He couldn't be there all the time, but when he wasn't there, they always wanted to know where he was, because he was the heart of why we do things. ...
So according to the age you teach, you need to consider how you will create that centre from which everything will flow. This [the poem] was constantly referred to, through Mr Strutt, because the children couldn't read it, but they danced to it, and they quickly learned a lot of it, and then they showed Mr. Strutt around the school that they knew about.
Images on this page feature: the original school building; and the “commission” letter and poem that Dorothy produced. Photos of Dorothy working at the school, by Chris Webb.
Sources: unpublished transcript of a Mantle Network event at Newman University, 25.2.09; except (1) “A Vision Possible" by Dorothy Heathcote, in Drama: One Forum, Many Voices Winter 2003 (Vol. 11 No.1)