Making Theatre With Young People

"Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up." Pablo Picasso


I'm currently getting ready to go back to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland to take a course on Shakespeare for schools.  This is the third year that I've done this but, with the recent changes in their curriculum, it has been extended from a week and a half course to three weeks (for two groups, so 6 weeks in all).  Creating the course has led me to really think about youth theatre and making theatre with young people.  I've been doing it for over ten years, I've devised, written and directed scores of plays with young people and I'm constantly trying to find out what works best.  It's a never-ending journey but one that I find consistently exciting.  I've been very lucky that I've received various other opportunities to work in theatre, but I still find myself drawn to working with young people.  

Here are a few concepts that I firmly believe are vital to create great theatre with young people, when I talk about youth theatre I am talking about working with groups of young people that are not auditioned and, probably, attend weekly classes:

Create your own work. This is the starting point to it all.  I've attempted doing scripted plays, musicals through the years and, for reasons that I will explore in a minute, it is nowhere near as successful for the group as a whole.  That's not to say that the performances have been bad and that all originally written plays have been superb, of course there are ebbs and flows depending on the group you have.  But I firmly believe that if you approach a rehearsal with a completely open mind then time and time again the young people will offer you exciting ideas that relate to them and what they want to show, rather than another performance of 'Oliver' that is fun to do but doesn't belong to them.  It can take a number of years to get young people, especially teenagers, to trust in this way of working, especially if they're not used to it.  But once they have settled then, I can say from experience, that the work just gets better and better.  The trick is to always find new ways of creating so you don't fall into a pattern.  I will add the little caveat that one of the most successful productions I've been involved in was 'Blackout' by Davey Anderson.  This was due to the way that it was written, it could be a monologue or it could have 100 people in it, you decided who said what and also it was based in Glasgow and so was relatable to the young people. And it was a great play (of course)!  If there were loads of plays kicking around like that then all our job's would be easier, but unfortunately 'tis not so.

From GYT's '100 Days'


Full engagement is key.  This is the cornerstone of everything that you can try and achieve with youth theatre and it's the main reason why I back away from 'out-of-the-box' musicals and plays and tend to write for the group I'm working with.  If you have a cast, say, of 30 young people and you decide to do a 'show' then the chances are that there are only going to be a small number of main parts and infrequent chorus scenes where the others can be involved.  This, for me, doesn't work.

It encourages those who are strong performers to continue being strong performers but it also means that those who aren't as strong are left to enter, do a dance then exit again.  They may find this fun and enjoy doing it but it's very difficult to give them a feeling of ownership over the performance, and that's something fairly unique that youth theatre can offer.  The shy little kid who can barely speak in public, far less dance and sing, can offer an idea regarding the story, characters.. whatever... and that idea is always theirs, always something that they contributed.  It's harder to do that with a show that was written for someone else, somewhere else.

You can still increase engagement with young people in pre-written pieces by involving them in the making of props, costume, bringing them into the directing/creative process etc.  This can go a long way to giving them a sense that this is something they created, rather than this is something they performed.  I fully understand that this approach is very much performer-centric and doesn't take in the audience at all.  But youth theatre is about the young people, and if they are performing a play that really, truly means something to them, then the audience will feed on that and will get a very different experience than 'traditional' theatre.

Creating your own props is a great way to increase engagement

There's no such thing as a kid's show. I hate hate hate hate it when I get told "that was good, I mean.. for kids" or words to that effect.  Why can't a 14 year old put on a performance that is equal to or superior to a 40 year old?  Of course they can.  The key is in giving them the opportunity to perform to their strengths (whilst always pushing what you and they think they are capable of). You've got someone who can juggle like a pro - try and use it! No-one in your group does dance and singing classes (either at your youth theatre or out-with) then don't focus on something that involves dancing and singing!  And vice-versa, if you have amazing singers then why not incorporate that into your show?  It's very very obvious but the number of times I've seen groups attempt to perform in a style that is not concurrent to the makeup of the young people is quite incredible.  And remember, that best thing that young people can play is... young people.  There are so many exciting possibilities within that spectrum, and it's not something that you see in the theatre very often, don't try and squeeze them into parts that don't fit.  If you're creating your own work then this is pretty simple, you just need to be aware of it. Which leads me to my next point:

Adults, leave your head at home. I find the scariest, and most exciting part of working with young people is that they have an amazing ability to create new ideas.  That's not to say they should be left to go off and do whatever they want.  It's the drama workers job to take these ideas and to turn them into something tangible.  It's also the drama workers job to come up with unique ways to get ideas out of young people, so that they are constantly surprising themselves. But you have to be incredibly open for this to work.  You have to put your own experience of theatre, stories, interests that you have to one side and allow the young people to guide your thoughts.  Of course there comes a point where you need to step in and say that out of x number of ideas these are the ones we're looking at and here's how we're going to put it together. This is where the idea of full engagement comes into play, it's a difficult tight-rope of guiding the young people, introducing them to new concepts (as all good teachers should) whilst being open to their ideas and being able to work with them in the room.  Which leads me to my final point...

'Norris Norrison' was a full length play created from a seed of an idea about a supermarket manager

Plan up to a point. Of course planning is no bad thing.  You will need strategies to get the best ideas out of the young people, you will need a starting point for that day's activities but don't be stuck to your plan.  If a young person comes out with an idea that is just too good to be ignored then follow your nose!  Again it's all about being open to what's happening in the room.  It's all about being able to adapt to what the young people are giving you.  Someone starts doing a weird dance in the corner of the room that seems to fit the scene perfectly?  Go for it, dump what you had planned for that scene and explore if that dance has a place!  It might not work, but the young people will sense that just as much as you will.

Anyways, these points may prove useful to someone out there on the webosphere.  I'm sure there is plenty of room for disagreement, all I can talk about is my personal experience and I am aware that I will bring my own interests into the room even if I really try not to.

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