‘Giving young people cultural capital gives them a far stronger stake in society’
Children need to be at the centre of how we think about everything. If we prioritise the impact on children when considering public policy, we will make more compassionate and sustainable decisions to the benefit of the whole of society. We will also be forced to think about things with a longer-term perspective.
All children, irrespective of class, culture and geography, must have access to live performances of theatre, music and dance. Giving young people cultural capital also gives them a far stronger sense of their space and stake in society. This isn’t about people participating in or studying theatre, music and dance – although I think that is vital too – it is about them experiencing it live, as a communal experience.
This requires support and funding from the government, which should see it as a cultural investment in the citizens of the future. While theatre buildings are closed, this may mean a massive outdoor intervention, taking live performance into school playgrounds, public squares and parks. This should carry on when theatres are open too.
We need to acknowledge that we are experiencing a collective trauma as a nation. Art and culture are among the most effective ways we have to begin processing this trauma. Children will have been hugely affected by the restrictions placed on their lives by Covid-19 – but they will also be among the most resilient sectors of society. We can help them in their recovery process.
The pandemic has shown that there clearly is such a thing as ‘society’ and we must reinforce that artists are a vital part of it
Theatre for young audiences offers moments of wonder and a sense of belonging. Communal experiences are key to creating communities. We crave moments when we are together.
This pandemic has robbed all of us of these – but particularly children, which is why the rainbows and the Clap for Carers have become so important in unifying us. When we reopen theatres, we need proudly to nourish this spirit in society. The pandemic has shown that there clearly is such a thing as ‘society’ and we must reinforce that artists are a vital part of it.
We need to ensure that the work made for young audiences is experimental in form, challenging in content and produced with the highest possible production values. Quality must not become compromised in pursuit of reach.
We must remain open to the world. The pandemic has made us understandably cautious of crossing borders, but I strongly believe that young people are nourished by their exposure to different cultures and other ways of thinking.
Many of the most exhilarating shows we have had at the Unicorn have been from international companies and artists. Children learn empathy by understanding themselves in a global context, and artists grow by exchanging ideas and collaborating with our international colleagues.
The Unicorn was founded in 1947 as a response to the sacrifices of the Second World War and the desire for a society in which all children should have the joyful opportunity to engage with live performance. As we emerge from this era-defining moment of national sacrifice, it feels like an exciting and hopeful place to begin reimagining and remaking what the future of theatre and society could be.
Theatre is in dire straits, and in urgent need of support. We all hope that help is on its way from the government. But whatever support it receives, when theatre re-emerges from this disastrous pandemic, it will look very different. Now is the time to think about what happens next. That is what The Stage has asked people working across our sector to do: to select an issue that can be improved upon when theatre returns. The above article is one of 24 pieces in our ‘Theatre 2021’ series. There are many more topics to cover, and many more ideas to share. This series of articles is the first step in saying that despite this terrible crisis, theatre in 2021 can re-emerge, and in many ways can be better than before.