I’m on a train to Wigan. I’m facing backwards towards London in a seat with no window. In front of me four Millwall fans are drinking lager and talking about whether it’s ok to use the p-word. Behind me a posh man is berating someone over the phone for the £34,000 overspend on a restoration project.
I’m on a train going to Wigan because I’m running a workshop for the National Association of Youth Theatres.
I’m going because I’ve been (re)converted to the value of youth theatre and its potential transformative power. In fact, because connecting with other youth theatres now feels like an essential part of mine and Company Three’s work.
I haven’t always felt like this. There was a time years ago when I actively defined my work as somehow distinct from youth theatre. “We’re not a youth theatre,” I would say. “We’re more than that.”
Sitting on this train now, waiting to meet and work with youth theatre leaders from across the North of England, I feel a bit ashamed writing that.
I said it because I needed to be validated by people in the theatre industry who I assumed (rightly, I think) that youth theatre had less value than ‘real’ theatre. I wanted to be important and I accepted their definition of what was important and what wasn’t.
At that point in my career I thought that success meant being accepted and programmed by big theatres, getting real reviewers to our work, winning awards.
I don’t think that so much anymore.
As I’ve got older I’ve learnt that validation by the industry is much less important than genuinely creating change in audiences. Those things aren’t mutually exclusive, but they don’t always come together either.
In fact, I’ve come to realise that youth theatres have the audiences that all mainstream theatres say they want: diverse, representative, local, kind, committed, supportive and uncynical.
(I am struck about how comfortable our audiences – mainly parents, teachers, local people - are when they come to see our work. No-one worries about whether they fit in or how to behave. They just come and chat, watch the play and will the young people on. They are what every audience should be.)
I sometimes imagine how transformative it would be if every village, town and borough in the country there was a group of young people supported to think about themselves and society, and given a platform to speak out to the adults in their lives.
Then I think: there is. There are literally thousands of groups of young people in school drama studios and community halls being trained to do just this.
But often they are doing it in a way that reflects a broader societal paradigm that says young people are there to be turned into adults, rather than that they are valid human beings with their own opinions and needs.
We make plays conceived and written by adults in which young people play the part of adults (or at least an approximation of what they think adults are). It’s almost as if we’re using theatre to hurry teenagers into adulthood, like it’s some kind of training ground.
Sometimes it is a training ground – and that’s fine. Asking teenagers to recreate adult characters and adult performances is a totally valid way to train and understand theatre practice. But it’s not really what art is about.
No-one should make art to recreate what’s been done better by others. Art is about changing and challenging audiences. Youth theatre does this best when teenagers are deeply involved in the making of the play.
That might end up with them playing adults, or even performing plays intended for adult actors, but that should be a conscious choice born of what they want to say, rather than an assumption that it’s all they’re good for.
Far better to make new work, forged through a collaborative process in which young people have real agency and authorship. Work that sings (hopefully literally) of the voices that created it. Work that can genuinely shift the way audiences think about teenagers, themselves and world (because boy do we need it).
What a powerful, radical thing we might have then: work made by teenagers for audiences that the big theatres would cut their arm off to write into their Arts Council report. And the potential for that to exist everywhere there is a youth theatre or after school drama group.
That’s kind of what my workshop is about today. And why I’m on the train to Wigan.