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Toby Ealden: We don’t understand young people, and we need to – quickly

A scene from Thrive, Zest Theatre's latest show aimed at young audiences.
Toby Ealden
Toby Ealden trained at Bretton Hall before developing a range innovative youth arts programmes for Nacro - the national crime reduction charity. In 2007, he established Zest Theatre to create theatre especially for young people. The company now has a national reach of 12,000 young people a year. Ealden also theatre director at the Lost Village Festival.
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This week a new report commissioned by Arts Council England was released. It recommends a "step change" in ACE's work with children and young people in order to achieve its goal of "great art for everyone".

The report is great in setting out recommendations for ACE in terms of gathering data, and the document is littered with examples of brilliant practice already happening across the country. But for me, the most important findings don't get as big a focus as they should.

The report says: “Young people are less likely than older people to distinguish between ‘arts and culture’ and other activities in their leisure time by labelling some as one thing and some as another… young people’s digital, social, cultural activity and participation are increasingly interconnected.”

And that should be at the core of our thinking in the arts sector, because we risk becoming part of the blur in an increasingly high-definition world. There are new rules, and we need to understand them – fast. We too need to make a 'step change'. If we don't, how can we begin to ask the right questions?

At Zest Theatre, we’re looking into research from international marketing agencies into Generation Z, the young people following on the heels of millennials. Generation Z’s outlook is completely different from the millennials. We often think they are the same, but this is a mistake. They’ve only known recession, uncertainty and complexity. A recent survey by the Varkey Foundation found that, despite their money worries and fear for the future, they’re resilient, resourceful and carving out an identity for themselves by doing things their own way. This type of research tells us so much about what makes young people tick, and what’s great is that this data has already been generated for us by other sectors.

And Generation Z doesn’t consume culture in the same way. They don’t just want to watch a theatre show, they want to be a part of it, they want to blog about it, Snapchat the actors, share pictures of the friends they went with and what they wore to it, talk about what they did in town beforehand and where they hung out after. They don’t find out about culture in the same way either, they look to social media, to YouTubers, to apps, to online streaming platforms...

So what next? Firstly, we need to get to know them, build relationships, to build their trust. In our experience, this is the biggest currency for young people. Once you have their trust, you’ve answered all your audience development problems in one hit. So let’s be prepared to get labour intensive, in both digital and face-to-face interaction.

Secondly, we need to be prepared to step out of the neat boxes that have traditionally defined our practice. This will mean asking some difficult questions and doing things in a new way – even if this is uncomfortable. For some of us this will mean putting our artistic (and sometimes self-serving) ego to one side in order to be more flexible.

Thirdly, we need to be quick. Before we get left behind.

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