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Lyn Gardner: Are we brave enough to stage work that challenges young people?

Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven in Us/Them at Summerhall, Edinburgh, in 2016. Photo: FKPH Carly Wijs’ Us/Them at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016 – it was programmed for an older audience when it transferred to the National Theatre. Photo: Felix Kindermann
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Last week, I was at the Incubator Ideas Festival at the Egg Theatre in Bath, which presents and produces work for young people and their families. It was a chance to see early-stage work from a number of artists.

The programme included scratch work by Jenny Sealey – Flour Babies and Me, a story that bounces off Anne Fine’s novel to tell a personal tale of family secrets – and Nikki Warwick’s To Be a Tiger, an uncompromisingly honest piece about the fury of the child and the frustrations of parenting.

Josie Dale-Jones’ The Family Sex Show celebrates different types of bodies, self-acceptance and the pleasure they can give. It is midway through development, as is Jenni Jackson’s participatory dance piece Thank Heaven for Little Grrrls, in which a group of eight to 12-year-olds asks us to see them for who they really are.

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What was fascinating about all these shows, developed over a year with the Egg’s Incubator programme – which is funded by the Leverhulme Trust – was their boldness. That’s undoubtedly connected to the fact that the artists were encouraged to follow their instincts and not worry about who might programme it and where.

As the Egg’s creative producer, Tim Bell, put it, the programme is not an act of parenting but an act of midwifery – and one that puts the artist’s idea first. It means they develop the work without limiting themselves to what they think programmers want. The risk, of course, is that some of the work I saw may never find the partners and co-producers it needs to be developed further.

We have a lot of great children’s theatre in the UK with companies such as Oily Cart, Theatre-Rites, Theatr Iolo and Starcatchers making glorious work for everyone from babies to teenagers. Last week, Justin Audibert launched his first production as artistic director of the Unicorn: Anansi the Spider. He follows in the footsteps of Purni Morell, who upped the game of what children’s theatre might be, who it is for, and who it could be made by.

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The Edinburgh International Children’s Festival is always full of thought-provoking work, much of it hailing from cultures that have a very different attitude towards children – and therefore towards theatre for children. Such work expands our ideas about what subjects theatre for young people can tackle and what images it might show.

At a conference three years ago, I recall Morell saying: “We try to teach our children certainties. But it is better to teach them nothing at all because the world is an uncertain place and it is facing serious issues. It’s better to be honest and say we don’t have the answers. It’s better to work out what to do together.” That feels even more necessary as the uncertainties of Brexit, the rise in populism and the climate emergency become increasingly urgent.
While young people are increasingly stepping up on issues including the environment, mental health and social justice – issues on which we adults have failed woefully – too much work made for young people remains timid in content and form. It is often programmed and produced with an anxious eye towards the box office, hence the plethora of familiar page-to-stage titles.

Carly Wijs’ Us/Them, produced by Brussels-based Bronks Theatre, and about the Breslin school siege, was made for young audiences aged nine and older. I first saw it during the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016. It was stunning. But when I asked producers whether they would put it on in their venues, after agreeing it was stunning, they concluded it would be impossible to programme because of the subject matter.

In the end, the National Theatre programmed it in the Dorfman, where it came with an over-12s recommendation and was seen by a predominantly adult audience. What are we trying so hard to protect our children from? And in protecting them, might we be damaging their ability to face up to the complexities of the world and difficulties they will face as the old certainties melt away?

Surely theatre has a real role to play here. It could be at the forefront of a cultural shift, giving children the tools, the agency and the confidence to deal with the challenges ahead. Programmers and producers need to ensure that young people have access to theatre that offers more than a nice David Walliams adaptation, enjoyable though that may be.

The two days at Incubator proved that artists have the vision, the ability and the daring to make the work. But the question it left hanging is whether British theatres, festivals and venues are brave enough to step up to the plate. It means asking themselves whether they want to just be entertainers, or at the forefront of supporting and developing a culture of children’s theatre that is truly relevant to young audiences, and disrupts notions of what family and children’s theatre can be.

Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner

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