“You’re doing a PhD? Cool! So does that mean you’ll be a Doctor then?” “Yeah. Well, potentially.” “What will you be a Doctor in?” “Erm… youth theatre I suppose.” “What?” “Well, my PhD is looking at youth theatre in rural areas of Northern Ireland. It’s quite exciting actually, because-” [gets interrupted] “Hang on- are you telling me that you are getting funded to research – what – childish drama? In the countryside? In Northern Ireland? That’s pretty…well…niche…”
I have been having the above conversation, or variations of it, quite a lot over the past few months. I know how weirdly specific my research sounds – and it’s far from the conventional definition of a ‘proper job’! People seem initially a bit unsure of what to say when I trot out the phrase “the social value of rural youth theatre”. And I must admit I’m still perfecting my ‘elevator pitch’ technique. However, I find that when I do get to describing what really excites me about this work, 9 times out of 10 people respond with enthusiasm. They usually have some experience which connects with the topic, or a specific area which interests them. So, here goes with a brief explanation of what I’m up to, and why…
In summer 2013 I completed an MA dissertation looking at the buildings which are used for youth drama activity in small towns and villages across Northern Ireland. I visited some incredible community spaces, such as The Hub BT80 in Cookstown and Craic Theatre and Arts Centre in Coalisland. However, I also encountered some youth theatres who were working in dilapidated community halls, where their group seemed to be at the bottom of the food chain compared to activities such as bingo or mother and toddler groups. I found that some youth theatres were being ‘priced out’ of their local council facilities: in one case a group handed over their entire production’s profits to the council in return for hall hire for one evening. This made me realise the need for dedicated arts spaces in small communities, and I fell to wondering about what it takes to make those spaces a reality. Is it just about having dynamic individuals in the community who can make things happen? What other factors are in play?
Another interesting issue was hinted at in my MA project. There seemed to be some communities where sport was valued much more than the arts as a ‘suitable’ or ‘appropriate’ activity for young people. Young people from these areas reported that at school, those who were good at sports were “treated like gods” whereas the people who were into drama were considered “a wee bit weird”. And yet there were other places in Northern Ireland in which the youth drama leaders were also football coaches, and where there were few reports of a ‘sporting bias’…
A third issue that came up during my dissertation was the experience of young men from rural areas involved in drama. One young man who now works as an actor said to me: “What 15-year-old boy from my village is going to put down his hurling stick and say: ‘No, I want to do drama?’ “. It seemed that in some places, participation in drama was not valued as an attractive activity for young men.
These three ‘tasters’ of issues pointed towards a need for more substantial research into how youth theatre is perceived and valued in small communities. As well as being interested in the experiences of participants, I am very keen to explore how youth drama is viewed by those not directly involved. What do people who watch a youth theatre performance in their village hall think that that youth theatre group brings to their village? What do sports leaders think of youth drama? What about parents? Teachers?
There has never been a published academic study on youth theatre in Northern Ireland. I am very aware that, as a professional youth drama facilitator myself, I am bringing a certain bias. However, I am not aiming to produce a piece of advocacy work that is simply ‘cheerleading’ for youth drama ie ‘Look at how these young peoples’ lives have been transformed! Isn’t it wonderful!’. I want to explore, as objectively as possible, how this art form is perceived from a variety of angles, including those which are not positive. I am interested in capturing a representative snapshot of opinions about youth theatre, and experiences of its impacts, in order to see whether it can be deemed to have any sustainable and significant social benefits in small places. And if I find this to be the case, I will look at how the sector can be better supported, and how it can develop itself.
Here goes then. Wish me luck. And please do get in contact if you are involved in youth activities in a rural area, or even if you just have interesting thoughts on the subject. I’ll be posting a new blog entry every 1-2 weeks. Please keep checking back – and share this page with anyone you think might be interested.