Training to inspire young theatre audiences

Students from Rose Bruford performing at Half Moon Theatre as part of a theatre for young audiences module. Photo: Half Moon Theatre Students from Rose Bruford performing at Half Moon Theatre as part of a theatre for young audiences module. Photo: Half Moon Theatre
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Is making theatre for young audiences any different to making theatre? Does it require a special set of skills that aren’t offered on other training courses?

If you look at the syllabus of many acting BAs and applied theatre courses, there are modules aimed at theatre for young audiences. It may be a piece of Shakespeare aimed at a schools audience, a schools tour or a piece of children’s theatre for Christmas. But creating theatre for young audiences is about more than touring work to schools.

Across the country there are companies and theatres that specialise in creating a full-time programme of work aimed at young people. Visit the Unicorn or Polka Theatre in London, or the Egg Theatre in Bath and you’ll see a programme of work as eclectic and diverse as any other theatre – the only difference is that their seasons are aimed at young people.

In the same way that theatres specialise in work for a young audience, so too do some MA courses.

Both Bath Spa University and Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance offer an MA in theatre for young audiences. These postgraduate courses are aimed not just at actors, but are geared towards anyone who wants to create work for young people – whether as actors or as theatremakers. As Mark Langley, associate professor of performance at Bath Spa, explains: “We expect students to be from a mixed range of backgrounds because theatre is made by many kinds of people. We need actors, but also directors, designers, directors and producers. We need people with great ideas.”

Why study making children’s theatre at all? Isn’t making theatre for young people just making theatre? The audience may be different, but doesn’t the process of creating the work remain the same?

“We have this discussion all the time,” Langley says, “but really I think this is the wrong question. It is not that the theatre is different, but the people who work with us have a particular desire to work with young audiences.”

Over at Rose Bruford, Alec Brand explains: “Theatre for young audiences is just as challenging, if not more, than theatre for adults. By questioning and reflecting on this area of theatre, our students gain a broad understanding of theatre for young audiences, whether through practical workshops in acting, musicality, circus skills, storytelling, teaching, directing or writing.”


Specialist courses: Theatre for young audiences

Rose Bruford College The next theatre for young audiences MA programme will begin in September 2017. Information days will also be held during the college’s Edinburgh Fringe season at Summerhall on August 5-7 and 15-16. bruford.ac.uk

Bath Spa University One-year full-time, or two-year part-time MA, Mostly taught on the Newton Park campus and at the Egg Theatre. bit.ly/bathspa-ma-tya

Both courses harness their students’ passion for creating work for young people, and in doing so they are also able to connect their students to a wider community of theatremakers. Bath Spa has an ongoing partnership with the Egg Theatre in Bath, and at Rose Bruford students are able to take up placements with companies such as Oily Cart, the Unicorn and Half Moon Theatre. Brand is proud that “the course allows students to collaborate with some of the world’s leading TYA practitioners”.

Just as those students who apply for the course are passionate about creating TYA, so too are the teachers and institutions offering the courses. At Rose Bruford, Brand says it “is embedded in the culture of Rose Bruford College, particularly since the mid-1970s when the late Stuart Bennett (who was instrumental in developing the Theatre in Education movement) became director of our groundbreaking Community Theatre Arts programme”.

And Langley adds: “There is a wonderful mix of suspension of disbelief and heartfelt criticism. You have to make every decision work. The second you falter the audience will spot it, and they will react. And when you get it right, you know it.”

Graduates of both courses have gone on to work around the world. Some have joined established companies, while others are creating work and companies of their own. As Langley puts it: “I think that theatre for young audiences has to be the best – that is the way we get the next generation interested in live performance.”

Q&A: Daniel Bye

Actor, writer and director

Daniel Bye
Daniel Bye

Training: BA in English, MA in theatre studies; NT Studio directors’ course; Some work with Philippe Gaulier and John Wright, as well as Cicely Berry at the Royal Shakespeare Company

What appeals to you about creating theatre for young audiences? 

You learn different things from them than from an adult audience. I don’t really believe people who say kids have a lower boredom threshold. They don’t. They’re just less shy about letting you know. You need more control of the rhythm of the whole event. It’s important to notice that the adults who watch and programme a lot of theatre for young audiences have a different idea of what constitutes good kids’ theatre than do young people. This becomes especially skewed when this theatre is programmed off the back of appearances at festivals with no young people in the audience.

Is there a difference between theatre for young people and for adults? 

Much adult theatre is made with no discussion of the audience – as if they’re not important or as if talking about them is somehow shameful. You can try to get away with this in theatre for young audiences, but you won’t last long. Theatre for adults can learn a lot from this.

Q&A: Rachel Barnett Jones


Rachel Barnett Jones
Rachel Barnett Jones

Training: BA in English, MA in advanced theatre practice (playwriting); Royal Court Young Writers course

What appeals to you about creating theatre for young audiences? 

I love knowing that, for some children, my play will be their first experience of going to the theatre – I hope it will inspire them to see lots more as they grow up. I love that the conversation about the play, and the imaginative play that the show will engender, will carry on once the children get home – and possibly many months into the future.

What advice would you give students working on theatre for young audiences?

Share your work with your audience from an early stage of development. Test it with an audience. Commit and strive for high standards but don’t be precious. Don’t be shy of dealing with big themes and big emotions. You don’t have to wrap everything up and make it safe. Bring yourself into your work – remember how you felt as a child, what inspired and intrigued you. Don’t make a play about what you imagine children to be interested in. Talk to real ones, get them to teach you. Children can get a great deal out of an uncomfortable, unsettling play just as adults can. Leaving them with questions (though not trauma) is part of our job.

Jones’ play Gorilla is touring in the autumn with Watershed Productions