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Careers Clinic: How do we engage troubled youths?

John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher
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A group of friends and I set up a small theatre company last year, and although we didn’t have a particular age focus in mind, most of our commissioned work so far has been for younger audiences – a local panto, a primary school tour and so on.

We’ve learned a lot and enjoyed the work (as well as the small boost to our ‘jobbing actor’ earnings), but still being (relatively) young actors ourselves, we wanted to make sure we didn’t get too comfortable too early, as far as project choices go.

With summer over the horizon, we’ve identified some local funding for theatre work with ‘disaffected youth’ and it’s something we’d like to pitch for. We have heard on the grapevine that, since similar projects haven’t worked well, we’re likely to get the okay as there isn’t a lot of competition, but would like advice on making the project work for ourselves and the young people.

JOHN BYRNE’S ADVICE While you haven’t asked for advice on writing the proposal, I am going to offer a little bit anyhow. Don’t make the basic error of tailoring your proposal so closely to what you ‘know’ will get funded that you end up locked in to having to do it in a way that doesn’t work either for you or for your audience.

I would see if the grapevine you have access to can give you some more information on why previous projects failed. To help yours work, I asked HighRise Theatre, a collective of actors, directors, facilitators and choreographers who specialise in this field, for some pointers.

Here’s what they said: “First off, we think it’s important to state that we make theatre for ‘disaffected’ young people only from the starting point that we see no difference between them and us. We actually make theatre for everyone. We have been where they are – and are still licking our own wounds on some of the same challenges today. The work HighRise make is primarily sparked by conversations with the young people we work with.

“We run a weekly youth theatre as well as employment and training programmes at the We Are Spotlight creative space in east London, using time with them to listen to and explore what is relevant and inspires them, stylistically and thematically. This cycle of listening and creating feeds the work we put on stages, paired with an honest and eclectic group of professional devisers and performers that can carry off the stories, characters and ‘urban’ style needed to connect with disenfranchised teenagers.”

I think anybody who has performed either in panto or for primary school audiences will agree that it isn’t too difficult to evoke highly vocal participation in a short space of time (although managing that response effectively is definitely a special performance skill). With youth audiences, especially when there is already a sense of disconnection, relationship building is often a longer term but necessary first step to engagement.

I also agree with HighRise that, while ‘don’t always give the audience what it wants’ may be a good piece of general advice to stop performances becoming stale, for this particular audience, making it clear that you are listening to what they actually want to hear as opposed to imposing on them what we or the local authority have already decided they ‘need’ to hear is a very important element to build into the proposal and the production process alike.

The art of a good funding proposal is in ‘fitting the brief’, but also allowing yourself freedom to carry out that brief based on artistic discoveries you may not make until you actually start working. Good luck and enjoy the journey.

HighRise Theatre’s forum production of Between the Cracks is at We Are Spotlight on March 23, wearespotlight.com Contact careers adviser John Byrne at dearjohn@thestage.co.uk or @dearjohnbyrne

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