Features: June 18th, 2010

The number of young people described as not in employment education or training (NEETs) is continuing to grow. Engaging young people who are isolated, disadvantaged, at risk, or uninspired is a major challenge. The author describes how in Thurrock, an urban area east of London, the challenge is being met by introducing them to theatre.

True partnership goes beyond merely an exchange of finances. It requires a sharing of ambitions and values. Rarely has this been illustrated with such great effect than the ‘its our theatre : Thurrock’ partnership between Thurrock Council’s Children, Youth and Families directorate and the east of England’s regional company for young people THEATRE IS…

Two people key to making the project a success are Terry Hammond, Curriculum Development Manager at Thurrock and Stuart Mullins CEO and Creative Director of THEATRE IS…in this article they talk about how ‘it’s our theatre: Thurrock’ has had a profound effect on the lives of Thurrock’s young people.

Engaging young people

Terry begins “I first met with Stuart Mullins over 2 years ago. One of my responsibilities, as 14 – 19 Curriculum Development Manager, was to find new and exciting ways to re-engage young people in learning. My experiences as a teacher had shown that being part of a performance, either behind the scenes or on the stage, inspired and motivated young people. It focused their efforts and energies in a creative and positive direction. Stuart introduced me to an initiative he was working on in Norfolk called it’s our theatre.”

Stuart continues “The original pilot of it’s our theatre (IOT) took place in Norfolk as part of a major government initiative to deepen the engagement of young people in theatre. IOT Norfolk was one of just nine national projects developing unique and innovative ways of engaging burgeoning young professionals of the future. The project, which aims to empower young people to lead and produce their own cultural events, developing and owning their own arts infrastructure, was a huge success in Norfolk.

The question was: could it work in an urban setting such as Thurrock? Since September 2009 IOT Thurrock has tapped into and built on an environment of aspiration amongst those young people who are in need of an alternative path. Those who could be described as isolated, disadvantaged, at risk, unengaged or uninspired are now part of a group who are creating their own social enterprise, one which will serve communities throughout Thurrock and beyond”.

Terry comments “Two years ago Stuart’s vision was a bold and exciting one, my experiences so far endorse every word of that vision.” Terry and Stuart spent 18 months convincing partners, fundraising, researching and trialing the project in Thurrock schools. The trials were a form of consultation asking young people not only what art forms excited them, but also how they would like to build a cultural offer for the people of Thurrock.

Young people respond

Terry continues “It’s our theatre Thurrock has taken the area by storm; nearly 2000 young people saw the IOT Roadshow, a live advert which generated so much enthusiasm and energy that nearly half applied to attend the workshops held in our schools and the Thurrock Learning Campus. One hundred and fifty young people were chosen to attend the workshops focusing on all aspects of performance from spoken word to hip hop dance. I visited one of the days and was overpowered by the enthusiasm and energy of the delivery.

The young people were being inspired and supported by the efforts of a team of talented professionals from Throwdown UK who work closely with THEATRE IS…to deliver the project. The day ended with a group performance where everyone took a turn to show the skills gained. It was refreshing and exciting to witness the way in which young people supported and celebrated every contribution. There are a lot of projects which seek to engage young people but there is something different about it’s our theatre’. Somehow in the space of just four evenings the young people and the artists become a community, one which does not end on night four but carries on into the future.”

The series of workshops were well received – one school reporting that they had not seen their pupils so motivated in years. Supported in addition by the Thurrock Thames Gateway Development Corporation, the workshops culminated in a Slam Night, held at the Thameside Theatre, at which 26 new acts were premiered.

Stuart continues “The project in Thurrock has only just begun. Following the Slam Night in November the THEATRE IS… team interviewed sixty young people aged 13 to 19, nineteen of whom were chosen to become part of the IOT Events Team. These young people are now being trained to become young entrepreneurs, developing their own social enterprise and working to engage other young people throughout Thurrock. They are making a new theatre piece called 10 Years From Now which will tour the area encouraging young people to think of Thurrock as a place to build their lives, a place in which they can have a say in their own future . Some will achieve an Arts Award, some will go on to take the Creative and Media Diploma, and some will be trained in the performing arts. Some may do none of these and just become great social entrepreneurs and professional artists of the future.”

Keeping the project moving

Terry concludes “The success of our partnership with THEATRE IS… reflects the quality of its team. Jonathan Meth, Executive Director of THEATRE IS, maintains regular contact and ensures that the project is going in the right direction for Thurrock. With this level of communication and partnership I look forward to an ongoing relationship with THEATRE IS…Thurrock which is becoming the home of the National Skills Academy for Creative and Cultural Skills. The Royal Opera House is building a Production Park, to house much of its back-stage development work, at Purfleet. The 14-19 Capital programme is developing a creative space on a school site and obtaining a Performing Skills Lorry to allow access to creative and media skills across the Borough. Are we being successful? The answer is a resounding YES. Over 90% of young people on our Engagement Programmes progress to college or jobs with training. We have reduced NEET and exceeded the stretch targets set in our Local Area Agreement. It’s our theatre is one of the reasons we are succeeding, it has a special ingredient, and as the team at THEATRE IS likes to remind us they are here to stay.”