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How Do We Engage Young People In Theatre?

Summary by Evangeline Cullingworth, 23rd January 2018, expanded by Adam Milford

The following conversation took place at Devoted and Disgruntled 13:

Devoted and Disgruntled

The person who called this session was not present, so we continued anyway. After all, one of the principals of Open Space is that whoever comes are the right people! Overall, this conversation contained a shared understanding that we were trying to talk about what is a very large and nuanced group with the term Young People, and an agreement that respecting and listening to young people in question is key to initiating work. An opening question was to clarify the use of the word theatre, do we want to explore engagement in a practice, a concept, a building or a company? We also sought a definition of our use of the term engagement, this means more than getting them in the building or introducing an awareness of theatre, but we felt that these things feel like beginning steps. We asked what it meant to feel un-engaged with theatre and spoke about Joan Littlewood’s inclusion of a group of young people who had previously been throwing stones at the building, how they became her Young Nutters. In discussing this target community of Young People (YP), we asked if we were communicating with them in the same way they are communicating with each other. Is theatre behind the curve here, in regards to Social Media/tech? We spoke about whether young people wanted to spend time, or be a part of something occupied by adults. The video of two young men breaking into the National Theatre was raised, and whether this could’ve been an opportunity for the NT to respond to the desire to use their space and be in their building. We shared experiences of established schemes and engagement departments in various theatres/institutions. Among these were The Royal Court, The Gate Theatre, Theatre Royal Stratford East. We discussed the perceived value of these schemes, and how separate or inclusive they were of the main-house operations of the building. It was suggested that we need to know more about how to educate not teach. We looked into where there is a separation between the work of the YP and the work of the institution. And where boundaries were being placed on the definition of “young” and why. Within the conversation about established work in institutions and buildings, we spoke about the shared learning that can occur from both sides. We discussed the differences between engaging YP as a venue and engaging them as an artist. Establishing a group independently brought up questions of space, engaging with parents as clients and receiving the support of schools and established groups. We discussed touring work, and where and how that can be participatory and engaging for YP. In our discussion about working as an artist with a group of YP, particularly when creating work with them, we questioned the use of specific terminology (including the word Theatre!!) We spoke about introducing theatrical terms to YP, as well as allowing new words and new definitions to form. This was also brought up in discussing how to initiate ownership and responsibility as well as giving permission to YP.


Having had time to reflect on this discussion, I've also continued this conversation with clients and other partners, including the Creative Industries Federation, Independent Theatre Council, Theatre Workout practitioners, exam boards, and with teachers.

There are concerns generally that we are heading towards a 'skills shortage', not just in our sector, but generally in the UK.

As we head down the path of a narrowing curriculum, reduced opportunities to engage with creativity in schools, and a sidelining by government of one of the UK's largest sectors in favour of traditional economic leaders (manufacturing, sciences, etc), we will be churning out a generation of young people who find it difficult to communicate, who can't think creatively and find solutions, and who aren't able to analyse and form opinions on matters which are important to life, work and society.

The creative industries are thriving, and it is estimated over 120,000 more jobs will be created in the next few years. We need creative people to fill those roles, so the reduction in student numbers taking creative subjects at GCSE level is concerning.

It is an ongoing conversation, and no 'solutions' have been decided, but I think we're heading in the right direction.

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