Theatre and creative practices for working with children and young people

In the last of our MACYS series post we turn to the experience of current students. As part of our MACYS enrichment programme each year we visit a number of organisations that work with children and young people. You can read about previous visits here. We also invite professionals from these organisations to contribute to our teaching and today we are welcoming back Rob Watt (National Theatre) and Mark Londesborough (Tricycle Theatre) who are contributing to our Researching Childhood and Youth module which we run in collaboration with our ESRC accredited Doctoral Training Centre. Students will be introduced to theatre as a research methodology and if last year’s event was anything to go by they are in for a real treat. In the meantime, our MACYS students went up to London earlier this term to visit Rob and his colleague Jackie Tait, at the National Theatre to hear about their learning programmes. Below Kate Jenkinson, one of our current students, writes about what impressed her about the National Theatre’s work with children and young people and how this resonated with her learning on MACYS.

Earlier this term a small group of MACYS students were lucky enough to visit the National Theatre in London to learn about the theatre’s education programmes for children and young people.

Rob and Jackie who form part of the team that delivers child and youth programmes, explained the central role that education and skills transfer will have in the future of the National Theatre.

The National Theatre has a number of different initiatives that allow children and young people of all ages to experience the process of making theatre. This includes writing, performing, directing, stage design, costume making, lighting or any one of the myriad of different skills required to stage a theatre performance.

It was particularly interesting to hear about Jackie’s experiences of organising the Early Years Programme because of the process of experimentation that the programme underwent during its development. It is the ethos of the National Theatre to widen the experience of ‘theatre’ to as many people as possible.

With this in mind, the Early Years Team held a series of theatre workshops for pre-school children and their carers in the community. The first was with a group of young parents, the second with a dad’s only group and the third, and most successful, involved grandparents. Each workshop produced a performance using movement, music and storytelling. Jackie offered some useful advice for anyone wishing to design a theatre-based project for children. She suggests using smaller models in order to test how successfully specific elements work and up-scaling when you are sure an idea works.

Funding for the programmes is obviously a major concern. Despite receiving funding from the Arts Council, the educational projects rely on the team’s ability to attract additional funding in the form of private sponsorship. Rob spoke about having to measure educational outcomes in order to satisfy sponsorship requirements. This approach might be seen to challenge the idea of theatre as entertainment for its own sake.

However, the introduction of independent programme evaluators has proven to be very positive and has made the process of approaching funders a lot easier. The theatre is in the process of linking a new production for young people with the National Curriculum in order to offer schools a fun way to inspire learning through a series of theatre-based workshops. This programme is offered in addition to a number of well-established programmes which encourage children up and down the country to get involved in creating theatre.

It was very striking how accessible the theatre was for children, young people and young adults. There are a variety of different programmes that cater for all ages from preschool to young adults. Young people can access theatre or writing workshops, use theatre resources and receive substantially discounted tickets for performances. It is clear that children and young people are valued and their involvement in the process of making theatre is encouraged at many levels.

I also found it really interesting to hear about some of the challenges that Jackie, Rob and her colleagues had faced and how these challenges resonated with our experiences as student learning about creative practices with children and young people on MACYS.

As part of our coursework last term we worked in small groups to devise an arts-based programme for young people. I found that the team at the National Theatre had to struggle with the same dilemma that we were faced with. Whilst designing the programme, we had felt the pressure to respond to ‘need’ and produce defined outcomes in order to receive funding. This way of working sits uncomfortably beside the notion that children and young people are citizens in their own right and entitled to a share of society’s resources without constant justification.

I was also impressed with how children and young people were very much involved in the conception of the performances even from a young age, and in ways that encouraged their full participation.

The theatre appears to be responding more to younger children than ever before and they have had several recent, in-house productions aimed at young audiences. There is also a belief that all expressions of theatre are important to children’s social development and emotional well-being. In addition to training its own programme facilitators, the theatre works alongside nursery nurses and youth workers to further develop their practice.

In terms of youth programmes, there appears to be a genuine commitment to supporting any young person who wants to become involved in theatre. Unlike many organisations, resources do not become inaccessible when a young person turns 18. The theatre recognises its vital role in encouraging creativity and young people can access subsidised programmes up until the age of 24.

Many of these initiatives resonate well with some of our learning on MACYS about children and young people’s citizenship and participation rights, as well as children and young people’s experiences of growing up in contemporary societies and how these experiences could be enriched by the state, communities and professionals.


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