I’ve been reading and listening to quite a lot of discussion about the state of Theatre for Young audiences in the UK, and how this will affect future audiences for theatre. One worrying theory appears to be emerging that plays experienced in schools (Theatre in Education) is largely to blame for young people’s reluctance to engage with theatre elsewhere.
Although the arguments are complex I’m going to invite discussion on three main areas:
There seems to be an idea that if a piece of theatre is written to fit into the school curriculum that it must be in some way artistically compromised. The main argument seems to be that young actors see Theatre in Education work as a way to get a start in the business, and that this has meant some companies produce work that is not as high quality as it should be. Of course there is bad work out there, but it is not the majority case. Until recent cuts hit hard there were a number of excellent companies with highly skilled actors touring across the country. A few are still hanging on in there, and amongst these companies is Big Brum, based in the West Midlands. I had the pleasure of seeing them in action at Warwick Arts Centre this weekend, where they performed Edward Bond’s ‘The Broken Bowl’. This was an extremely complex piece of theatre that could only have been delivered in an educational setting where the themes and dynamics of the piece could be unpicked by skilled actor/teachers. In no way was the writer’s artistic vision compromised, in fact it seemed to be stimulated by the opportunities offered by working in a setting where young audiences could be safely taken on an extraordinary journey.
Many young people’s only access to theatre is through companies that visit their school, or on trips to see a Panto at Christmas. Is that something that should worry the theatre community? I’m not sure it is, as exposure to performances, good or bad, will develop young people’s ability to view theatre critically. It’s unrealistic to think that all of them will become lifelong theatregoers, but if enough of them do then theatre still has a future. The aspect of this debate that worries me most is that theatre professionals themselves value work in theatres more highly than work in schools. My own company Timezones Curriculum Support has been booked back more than twenty times by many schools, so we must be doing something right, but I recently spoke to an award winning playwright whose plays for young audiences appear in theatres across the UK, and when I asked who attended these performances the answer was ‘mostly yummy mummies’. Theatre in schools therefore has to be valued as a way of giving access to all young people to experience imaginative and creative explorations of their world.
It seems to me that the greatest threat to future audiences is the competition from film and television. Theatre can be seen as sitting in a darkened room where you can’t eat or drink, and can’t text or get up and wander around to chat to your mates, and all that at a price that is often well above going to the cinema where the production values are much higher. This was typical of the feedback given from young people after the recent ‘free ticket’ scheme failed to reach its full potential. When money is tight, it’s a difficult argument to challenge. Can any stage production challenge the experience of viewing an episode of Dr Who at home for free? Of course it can! Theatre in schools can allow young audiences to explore the power of live drama, and plays in theatres can allow young audiences and family groups to experience the unique and extraordinary talent we have in the UK.
IN CONCLUSION: I warmly invite feedback on any of the points I’ve raised.