Keeping Theatre Relevant To Young People And Their Families (Part 2)

Welcome back. If you've not read part 1 I'd suggest doing so here as this part continues from there:

To summarise the last part; we discussed the importance of guiding young people and being a point of contact for their journey in to theatre and theatre making, the importance of making varied work for young audience and families as well as the value of market research and talking to these groups you want to engage. Allow me to welcome you back by throwing that last part under the bus. Because let’s make one thing: market research is nebulous at best, a compete lie at worst. Consumers very rarely know what they want.

An example: market research has shown consumers say they desire a rich dark roast but when buying habits are observed they prefer a weaker blend.*It’s theorised that the reason consumers say they want rich dark roast is they have fallen in to the belief that marketing tells us; that like such a blend makes one sophisticated etc etc. Or that they are saying what they think marketers want to hear (as we are prone to do, even on a subconscious level. We are pleasers by nature I believe). So do talk to people but be aware of things that may be influencing what they say. Just something to think on anyway, I’m not an expert. (“BUT JEREMY!” I hear you say “YOU SAID EVERYONE’S AN EXPERT”. Quiet. I know what I said. No one likes a smart arse)

Now on to the findings of the symposium.

Parental participation

We need to recognise that as well as institutions being gatekeepers there is one other large barrier to engagement for young people and families; parents. A 12 year old here has more in common with a 12 year old in China than their parents so creating work that appeals to both and both see value in is tricky, perhaps even impossible. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try though!

It’s important then to create work that allows parents to see the value in art and theatre and this can be done at a surprisingly young age. Research presented at the symposium suggested that if babies can respond to faces they can respond to theatre, if that theatre accommodates their needs. That means a focus on sensory and sound based performance over narrative. As well as this leaving space for the babies to respond naturally as babies, to explore and interact with the space gives a clear indicator of the stimulating effects to parents. To reiterate: By creating work that allows babies to act as babies during the performance makes parents not only feel safer bringing them but also enable the parents to see the stimulating effects and begin to see the value of theatre.

Tying us back to the previous section we should recognise that parents will want to teach children about their own heritage and culture. Creating work that draws from these cultures will make parents feel safer bringing their children to see it as it directly reflects on their identity and lived experience. If it’s engaging and exciting enough to fill their children with enthusiasm perhaps they will be more accommodating when these children wish to pursue creativity whether through community groups or perhaps even professionally. This is, of course, brilliant as we will then have makers from all sorts of worlds telling us stories.

Finally tying back to cultural handholders it’s important for both parents and young people to have someone to hold their hand and unlock those doors. Taking the first step can be daunting but having someone encouraging and saying “it’s fine, you belong here” can make a world of difference. I say this as someone with engagement and confidence issues of my own. Likewise having support when entering new spaces is vital so that this engagement continues.

• Making YA mainstream

If we’re really going to push engagement from a young age then youth arts also needs to be held to a higher standard. Kids are smart, smarter than a lot of us realise and they can smell bullshit a mile away. Instead of creating work that is “good for children” we should be striving to create work that is simply good. In aid of that we should make more dynamic work, providing a spread of all sorts of types of theatre, the type that adult audiences demand and expect. Raise it to a higher standard, high enough that if I wanted to go see a piece of young people’s theatre alone no one would bat an eye any more than they would at me reading Harry Potter on the train. In addition though we should also recognise the intention of the work we see; is it made appeal to young audiences and families or is it made to empower and give voice to them by placing them on stage. I say this because young people on stage speaking their truth carries different expectations of “quality” than a slickly produced piece, the young people may not be actors but the rawness and honesty is the point of the work. Have higher standards but be aware that different things require different measurements. We’re back to the pasta sauces again. Create work that is reflective of their world and made to a damn high standard. Young people are aspirational by nature, they always want to hit the next stage, to be older. By creating work that feels adult in scope and quality you’re appealing to that part of them, and by extension ensuring their parents are engaged and enjoy the work as well.

To really state how important it is for youth arts to raise its game (and theatre to shift its image in general) I’d like you to take a moment to consider what the competition is? It is my view that we compete for two things: people’s time and their entertainment budget. So our competition is film, tv, cinemas, pubs and of course people’s beds. If people would rather stay in bed than come see a play then we have a massive issue. And don’t brush it off with “well that type of person wouldn’t go to anything”. YES! EXACTLY! Why wouldn’t they go to anything? Because it doesn’t have value to them, because it hasn’t been created with them in mind and because what they were exposed to in their formative years fucking sucked. That’s not their failing. It’s ours. So talk to them and others like them. Find out what they need. Avoid over focus on certain audiences. It’s great to know who your audience is but don’t let that limit who you try to reach.

In the end though it’s on big organisations to help change the cultural perception of youth arts. Don’t just do a throwaway token panto. Find those voices that are creating work that young people and families are responding to and get them in the door. You have a responsibility to change how the public view theatre by programming quality work that challenges preconceptions of what YA is. By making YA more accepted we see wider voices and increased diversity. But what is diversity?

The answer to that will have to wait for part 3 where we look at including diverse voices from inception to action. Slick link there wasn’t it?

*This anecdotal evidence comes from here and I cannot find the original study.

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