Youth theatre connections at home and abroad

Like me, you may be feeling a bit uninspired after the General Election. However, I’ve been lucky enough to go on two research trips in the past few weeks to places and people with an incredible creative buzz. As I write up my notes from these visits, I feel myself becoming inspired again, not just for my PhD but for all my work in the arts.  I’ll share my thoughts on these trips with you, in the hope that I can pass on a bit of that buzz…

Eden Court Theatre and Cinema sits beside the river in Inverness, the capital city of the Scottish Highlands. When I visited in the last week of April, the city was experiencing a heatwave, with the result that we were sheltering from a 20° sun in town whilst snow still lay on the mountains above Loch Ness. It’s a beautiful place. I’d travelled there to meet with Eden Court’s CREATIVE team and take part in one of their team training weeks.

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Eden Court CREATIVE have a unique system of Theatre Arts Workers who operate in communities across the Highlands. The Highlands area is roughly the same size as Belgium, and considerably more mountainous, with the result that many communities are quite remote and inaccessible. As lovely as Eden Court Theatre and Cinema is, it would be difficult for young people in, say, Thurso, to regularly make the two and a half hour trip down to attend a youth theatre there. So, Eden Court employ a team of artists to make theatre activities happen in people’s local areas. They currently have nine Theatre Arts Workers who cover the whole of the Highlands, as well as a Drama Artist, a Dance Artist, two Digital Artists and two Accessible Arts Workers who are based in Inverness. Between them, they run nine youth theatres, two Young Companies and a dance company. But youth theatre is only one part of their remit: they also provide drama in schools, including delivering formal qualifications in schools where there is no drama teacher. And they are involved in a host of other theatre projects with both adults and young people. This crack team meet up three times a year to plan their activities, undertake skills training and help each other with any problems they may be experiencing.

Unfortunately I had to miss the first day of the training, so I rocked up on the morning of the staff tidy-up of the costume stores. Within 15 minutes of arrival I found myself blowing up a giant inflatable space ship (to check if it had any holes). It was a great conversation-starter and I quickly got to know the team.

One of my lasting impressions of Eden Court was how much of a strong, dynamic team they are. I’d gotten an inkling of this last year when I met some of their Theatre Arts Workers at the Interchange Conference – all the Eden Court ‘bloc’ seemed to be having great craic together! But at the team training I realised the extent to which they support each other professionally too. For one of the sessions, all the team members were asked to report back on an aspect of their activities over the past term. Instead of giving a boring talk or PowerPoint, each person used a different creative, interactive way of reporting. One in particular stuck with me: the artist was reporting on her progress with a young company throughout the year. She had drawn a road map on a large roll of paper, featuring bridges, bumpy bits and forests. Whilst driving a little ‘Noddy’ toy car across the map, the artist talked about the highs, lows and challenges she had experienced whilst working towards a production with her group. After ‘performing’ this journey once, she then asked the rest of the team for any suggestions as to what might make that journey easier. She wrote down this list of suggestions and placed in underneath Noddy’s car seat: this was the toolkit or powerhouse which would make the journey smoother next time. This simple exercise encapsulated, for me, the value of the team training sessions: enabling the Theatre Arts Workers to return to their communities charged up with new inspiration.

I took part in two skills training workshops, one on digital media and the other on Theatre of the Oppressed. I was able to try out Living Newspaper Theatre and Forum Theatre techniques, both styles which I had never experienced before. Because of time constraints, the sessions moved swiftly from exercises to devising to performance, and indeed, this reflected the pace of the whole training week. I got the sense that the Eden Court CREATIVE team do not have much time to footer about: they quickly got down to the essentials in each session and there was little waffling. In the Living Newspaper workshop I struggled to keep up as my group moved from a 30-second chat into an improvisation to devise our scene. This sense of ‘just doing it’, coming up with ideas through creative play rather than discussion, and testing them out straight away, is something I’ll take into my academic work too. I intend to ‘just jump in’ and do more things, rather than intellectualising or reasoning myself out of them. I may not yet have experience of making films, giving conference papers or writing journal articles, but there sure is only one way to get it!

I put this ‘can-do’ philosophy into practice straight away by deciding to lead my first ever focus group with the Eden Court team. Although I’d planned to do a few individual interviews rather than a focus group, having the whole team there in one place seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up on. As the session was close to lunch, I began by sharing out a box of chocolates: a highly successful technique which I intend to use in all future fieldwork! After inviting each Theatre Arts Worker in turn to describe the youth theatres which they run, I opened the floor up to three questions:

  • Why do you think young people keep coming back to your youth theatres?
  • Who comes to see your youth theatre performances?
  • Why do you think it is important to have youth theatres in the communities you work in?

The team gave me some really thoughtful responses. I realised the value of a focus group, because people bounced off each other: one person’s idea would spark off another, and lead the discussion down a new avenue. However, I am conscious that this was a very solid team who are used to working together. A focus group might not immediately work so well with a group who do not know each other – for example, a group of parents, youth leaders and teachers from a small town in Northern Ireland. But sharing out chocolate (or buns or tea), and getting people relaxed will definitely help…

I came away from this discussion buzzing with ideas. I realised that some rural communities in the Highlands, where there is a strong Shinty or outdoor sports culture, may provide very useful comparisons with small communities in Norn Iron. So now I am thinking that one of my four case study communities could be in Scotland…watch this space!

I flew home from Inverness full of admiration for youth theatre in the Highlands. However, I soon had reason to feel extremely proud of the sector in Northern Ireland too. I stepped off the plane and headed straight to the Lyric for the NT Connections youth theatre festival.

Connections is a nationwide initiative run by the National Theatre. They ask well-known writers to develop scripts for young people, then offer youth theatres the chance to perform these new plays in professional theatre venues.  This year, 26 theatres held a Connections festival. The week before my visit to Eden Court, they had hosted the Highlands Connections Festival. The Lyric was the only venue in Northern Ireland to take part, but they had the biggest ever number of participating youth theatres from NI: seven out of the nine groups were from the North.

I saw some cracking performances at the Lyric’s Connections. I loved Patrician Youth Club’s version of the Crazy Sexy Cool Girls’ Fan Club, a satire of One-Direction-mania. Their characters were spot-on and there was just the right suggestion of darkness flickering through the comedy. The whole auditorium vibrated with tension during South Western College’s performance of The Accordion Shop. About 40 young performers crept down either side of the audience, pausing every now and then to flash out torches and makes us feel complicit as they journeyed towards an unspecified riot onstage. I’d now like to leave you with a little snapshot of what the atmosphere was like offstage.

Lyric Connections offstage

On the Saturday of Connections, there were no adult shows taking place: the Lyric had given the whole building over to young people. In the afternoon, between the second and third performances, the foyer was packed was teenagers (instead of the usual red-wine-swilling crowd). Young people from all over the island of Ireland were getting to know each other and having the craic. Conversations seemed to be a healthy mix of discussions of the plays they had just seen and joyful random chats. A fantastic young musician, Triona Carville, was belting out tunes in the corner and you could buy a hot dog at the bar for £2.50: happy days. As the sun sparkled on the Lagan outside, a sense of jubilation seemed to bubble out of people, surrounding the room and spilling out of the windows, until one youth theatre leader and four of her young people got up and began to dance. They were soon joined by young people from other groups. The Lyric’s bar staff looked on with pleased surprise: Saturday matinees were never like this! I will never forget the atmosphere of freedom and happiness that afternoon. Several of the group leaders I spoke to emphasised how important it is for their young people to meet like-minded peers, to realise that they are part of a whole youth drama community beyond their own town or village. Plans are afoot to have two Connections Festivals in NI next year, so hopefully twice as many young people will be able to experience this buzz.

My heart has lifted as I’ve been writing this. I do worry about the future of youth arts under a politics of on-going austerity. Eden Court have experienced year-on-year cuts in their funding from Highland Council. In Northern Ireland, the Arts Council recently implemented deep cuts which will affect companies’ education and outreach programmes. People are unsure of what will happen when DCAL is amalgamated into the new Department of Communities. It’s serious stuff. But there is no point in getting het up and there is every point in jumping in, asserting the value of our work, trying new things and fighting to make spaces where young people can continue to imagine, play and grow. Come and join me – the water’s lovely…

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