Do you ever sit in a theatre audience these days and wonder: where are the teenagers? Beyond (vital and brilliant) youth theatre for this age group, how much art is made that aims to speak directly to the contemporary lives and concerns of teens? With some honourable exceptions – let’s hear it for London’s Boundless and Company Three, Lincoln’s Zest, Liverpool’s 20 Stories High, Manchester’s Contact Theatre – across a lot of the UK this is a depressingly empty space.
From Pilot Theatre’s research with 17-year-olds on our year-long project Eighteen, we know that what this group is seeking most is “somewhere to go”. In the context of all the cuts to youth centres and the devaluing of cultural education, has there ever been a bigger opportunity for theatres to embrace groups of younger people?
This is a politically engaged, disenchanted and networked generation but there isn’t even a scheme like A Night Less Ordinary through which to engage this under-represented population. Is this because venues themselves face a threat to their survival? With the rolling out of US-style dynamic pricing across many theatres to help them keep trading, perhaps it does demand a new kind of determination to go after increasingly cash-poor under-30s audiences, and teens especially, where the ticket yield is usually low.
This determination, which I know the sector feels (because I have never in my life had a conversation with anyone who doesn’t want to see more young people in theatres) needs to drive us to overcome our current challenges. This means making some big and brave changes, not just in programming, but in attitude – giving consideration for what theatre is for in the first place, and who it is for.
So, although it isn’t easy, and it’s only a small step, I’m really proud that through a new consortium that Pilot Theatre set up with Belgrade Theatre, Colchester Mercury, Derby Theatre and York Theatre Royal, we commission, develop and tour contemporarily relevant work for this age group, working collaboratively to test out new ways to embrace and welcome teen audiences.
Theatre gathers people together in real time and space, which itself is a vital act at the moment. Connecting offline, away from the relentless digital intrusion into our lives, our brains relax, and our heart beats sync up. We’re social animals driven to share and bond around live storytelling.
I only have to watch excitable secondary school kids on their first ever trip to a venue, vocalising their response to every plot twist, and then descending into pin-drop silence when things take an unexpected turn, to be reminded of the incomparable and enduring power of this art form.
Drama allows us to safely rehearse the big emotions we experience in life. It develops empathy in an increasingly disconnected world. It remains so needed – for everyone, but especially for teens seeking acceptance, validation and, most importantly, a space in which to belong and to be shown that their experiences and lives matter.
Esther Richardson is artistic director and joint chief executive of Pilot Theatre.
Crongton Knights opens on February 8 at Belgrade Theatre before touring to venues in York, Brighton, Salford, Derby, Huddersfield and London.