Keeping Theatre Relevant To Young People And Their Families (Part 1)

Part 1

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of attending a symposium on “Keeping Theatre Relevant For Young People and Families” arranged by TYA and based on a research trip to ASSITJ, the international youth arts conference, in Cape Town. Among those who undertook the research trip were six artists from various fields selected to pair up with key industry voices. The symposium covered a number of topics but I felt there were four key areas to take away and learn from. Below are those topics, as well as my notes and thoughts on each.

This blog ended up super long, it turns out I had a lot to say and the symposium covered a lot of ground. So I’ve split it in to three parts with parts 2 and 3 following over the next couple of weeks.

The symposium was opened by a local group called BeatFreeks with a spoken word piece called “Theatre Is Not For Me”. I’ve been unable to locate a transcript or recording of the piece for inclusion here but their choice to open with that speaks volumes. For people from certain backgrounds going in to even youth drama groups can be alienating. When others are talking about their solos, their drama school prospects and their portfolios and your experience is nights in with mates getting high and messing about you* can feel shut out without opening your mouth. Yet they still have a right to be creative, still have voices to be heard. So how do we ensure they do?

*This is not an assumption or judgement from myself, this was the example used by the young people at the symposium.

• Cultural Handholders

What do I mean by cultural handholders? Well if you’re reading it I mean someone like you, someone engaged with the arts and interested in its wider social value. Going forward with this I am going to assume a basic point; art has value both in itself and in its ability to foster empathy and understanding of others realities. I don’t consider this a large assumption and I hope you don’t either! So, a cultural handholder is someone engaged with the arts that can help those who aren’t to engage and find value in it. How can you do this?

Firstly we can introduce them to work that is reflective of their world. Obviously to eventually get exposed to the different worlds that theatre provides you need to be engaged with theatre. One of the key stepping stones towards becoming engaged is seeing work that is reflective of YOUR reality and world. Which brings me to the first point; The vast majority of theatre young people are exposed to is samey, repetitive and does not represent their world. We need to open the echo chamber of what we think young people want and strive to create work that first and foremost listens to them. If your only exposure is Shakespeare and panto then you’re probably not going to engage with theatre. This doesn’t have to be limited to young people either. I have friends who don’t really think theatre is for them but every now and then I’ll invite them to something and try and ensure it’s totally different from their expectations of theatre. Usually they really enjoy it, and certainly engage.

However we should beware of thinking there is a magic bullet for engagement. There will be no singular piece that will engage with everyone. If we can take a brief detour in to the world of pasta and marketing for a moment; Back in ye olden days there used to only be one style of pasta sauce you could buy and so everyone was competing to create the no. 1 perfect pasta sauce. One of the companies started doing really focused market research and found, unsurprisingly, that while some consumers preferred the standard sauce others wanted it chunky, or with more garlic etc etc. So they started making and selling those variants and quickly became the market leader. There is no perfect pasta sauce, only perfect pasta sauces. How is this relevant to young people, families and theatre? Simple. We need to stop thinking of them as a homogenous group to which only a certain type of theatre is marketed. They deserve the same variety and options as “real” theatre goers do and, indeed, it is more important that they have these options. More options mean they are more likely to encounter work that speaks to them and is reflective of their world. The right introduction can be a gateway drug to all theatre. More on that later.

It is also our responsibility through our introduction of these groups to theatre to recognise and nurture agents of change. To encourage them to engage with others and start creating. They are entering in to a world created by activists long gone, so we need to move beyond the language of founders and start learning theirs. We talk a lot about barriers to engagement and personally I feel like the language we use is a big one, but one that is so ingrained in the culture of theatre-making that it is difficult to shift. So we need to find people outside our sphere to show us where the shifts need to be made.

Although we should be taking risks in the work we make risk also needs to come from programe development. Artists should be talking to and including venues and ensuring people stay part of a process and don’t just become a name on an email list. Engagement and risk go hand in hand and should not, cannot just be a one-time thing. It needs to be continuous, ongoing. Parachuting in with the gift of theatre to enlighten the poor deprived souls only does one thing; strokes our own egos. We did a good thing. Look at us doing the good thing. No. Put in the work. Keep putting it in. Don’t give up if your first attempt fails, it’s OK to change strategies. Make use of the tools that are out there, the people in these places, contacts, research already done and above all TALK TALK TALK to people. I said it three times so it must be important. Right out of the Tony Blair playbook. Nailed it.

And of course: ACTUALLY INVOLVE YOUNG PEOPLE. You’d think it’s obvious but where there any, other than the two from BeatFreeks, at the symposium? Nope. If you’re making work for young people and families do it with them from the bottom up. Furthermore always keep the doors open for emerging artists wherever you may find them. As above. Don’t resort to tokenism and after discovering and enabling one or two diverse voices consider the job done. You need a continuous commitment to discovery, engagement (on your side this time) and listening to others. Everyone’s an expert in their experience and everyone’s an artist if given the opportunity to be one.

That’s it for this week. Next we’ll continue in part two by looking at parental participation and making youth arts mainstream. Please do let me know your thoughts on what I’ve written so far, and point out any glaring spelling/logic mistakes I’ve missed. Because I’ve definitely missed some. Until next time!

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