How do we encourage artists to make extraordinary work for young people? by Michael Judge

How do we encourage artists to make extraordinary work for young people? How we encourage artists to aspire to magic? These were some of the questions debated by Mike Kenny, Lyn Gardner, Tony Reekie, Kate Cross and Vicky Ireland at the recent Small Steps symposium at The Point in Eastleigh. This event initiated by Jenny Roberts and Sarah Brigham, aimed to lay the foundations for creating and touring high quality work for children and young people in the South East region. Mike Kenny, who has been writing plays for young people for a while began with a few provocations;

  • “A traditional tale is not a guarantee of quality”
  • “I’m not asked to take enough risks.”
  • “Programmers, I need you to be really picky.”

How do we balance this against the commercial pressures of getting bums on seats that a traditional tale appears to guarantee? How to replicate the phenomenon of White produced by Catherine Wheels? Not a traditional tale, not well-known title but a global success.

How do we encourage those excellent artists who may not think that children’s theatre is for them to make their most ambitious work for children? Inspector Sands are making their first piece of work for children. Their idea recently won the Southern region’s Sprout commission with Rock Pool, a participative semi-underwater performance described by the company as “a crustacean version of Waiting For Godot. For children.”   Fresh eyes, innovation are good; but so too is experience. How do we share the learning and knowledge of those who have been working in children’s theatre for all their lives? And yet keep an open mind and not be bound by a sense of ‘this is the way it is done?’

It is important to keep asking the questions and challenging funders, programmers and artists to aspire to make extraordinary work for young people.

The best piece of work for young people I have seen recently was Pondlife McGurk written by Rob Evans and performed by Andy Manley. What made it so good? There was very little set, just finely crafted, humorous storytelling by a hugely engaging performer.  A reminder of Peter Brook’s words.” A man walks across an empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed…”

The Arts council’s recently announced successful strategic touring applications are dominated by work for children.  The Small steps symposium has brought together companies, artists and programmers in the South east to continue to advocate for authentic artistic ambition. It is great to hear about a network in the South west; it is an opportunity for shared learning. Imaginate in Scotland sets the bar high for a strong network. It includes a career infrastructure and an international outlook that attracts more professionals to the sector. Apart from financial resource, what do we need to make the networks flourish in England?

Michael Judge has been involved in making theatre for, by and with young people for over twenty years; he is currently Learning at Arts Council England, these are his views and not necessarily those of his employer.
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4 Responses to How do we encourage artists to make extraordinary work for young people? by Michael Judge

  1. As co-artistic director of Hiccup Theatre and also director The Point, Eastleigh I come to this debate with 2 hats on. Firstly as an artist who has made work for, by and with young people for 15 years and now also as a programmer who understands the challenges venues face in presenting the work and also the opportunities we have if only we can commit our energies to this under supported sector.
    I think you pose some interesting questions here and for what its worth I’d like to respond and also ask some questions….
    A title can be done brilliantly. Fairytales, classic stories, even poems written for children have survived because they hold universal truths, they resonate with fears, desires or emotions in us all –they are part of the literary canon for TYA from which we can draw on, reinvent and explode for our times. My plea is that for the name of innovation let us not rob young audiences of classic tales – Just as an adult audience sometimes want to see a classic Shakespeare and sometimes wants to see a contemporary devised performance so do a young audience – there is room for both and both should be done brilliantly. Equally both can fail – making great work is hard, a title doesn’t guarantee quality in the same way that a new piece doesn’t guarantee innovation.
    As a programmer when I have the choice of title or no title. If I choose a title and also choose the company (meaning seeing their work beforehand like I would for any other part of my programme) I can be certain of a brilliant piece of work and bums on seats ….. if I win the trust of my audience in this way and I engage in a dialogue with them (and the gate keepers to them, their parents and teachers) I can also then programme work which is not title led but is equally as brilliant. This is exactly the same as programming any other part of my season– I mix the “safe bet” but hope it will still be brilliant with the “not known” and still hope it will be brilliant. Both are important for the sector and the audience so let’s keep both going.

    ‘How to replicate the phenomenon of White produced by Catherine Wheels? Not a traditional tale, not well-known title but a global success’
    I lived and worked in Scotland for four years and without a doubt the superb Imaginate has transformed the landscape there for companies making work in this area. A development agency who supports companies dedicated to this sector in the same way offering training, platforming, space, resource and mentoring would be a welcome addition to the scene in the South East without a doubt.
    If it did exist would it help us replicate the “White” phenomena? White is an extraordinary piece of work and Catherine Wheels and the team involved are extraordinary individuals (you only have to see White devisor Andy Manly’s latest play Mikey and Addie or previous Catherine Wheels shows to know this) … brilliant artists also live and work in the south east too…. I wonder if one can put the success of White down to the coupling of a brilliant piece of work AND an infra- structure in Scotland which not only respects the sector but also understands that great work in this area can be exported in the same way that theatre for ‘adults’ can? This work can be used as a flagship not just for this sector but for all theatre – that is surely the true success of White as well as being a brilliant piece of work?

    ‘How do we encourage those excellent artists who may not think that children’s theatre is for them to make their most ambitious work for children?
    We encourage them by making brilliant work and getting it seen, if you don’t have children and aren’t already interested in this area why would you see the work and even consider then making it yourself? Maybe we need to find new ways to show our peers the work that isn’t at 10 am on a Saturday morning!

    It’s superb that established companies are starting to want to make work for young audiences – good work is good work whoever makes it. My hope is that in the same way that I as a theatre director wouldn’t direct a dance piece without a movement director or an Opera without first immersing myself in that audience and genre I hope these established companies who are turning their hand to this area for the first time find the time to really get to know their audiences. I bet if they do, they’ll be hooked and never look back. I also hope that as these theatre makers transfer into the TYA sector so those form the TYA sector transfer their brilliance into work for ‘adults’ too long we have assumed that artists who make work for young audiences are second rate – I’d like to see Travelling Light’s version of Hamlet for adults or Oily Cart’s reflections on being middle aged!

    “Apart from financial resource, what do we need to make the networks flourish in England?”
    With my company hat on I’d say we need
    • Programmers who see the work and engage in a dialogue with us about it
    • Venues willing to invest the time into helping us make it brilliant – with a 2 hour get in we really do need a pre-rig!
    • Venues that are committed to making the whole experience a family friendly event – trained ushers, child friendly foyers….
    • A commitment to building audiences not just on a Saturday and Sunday – we cant attract the best actors if we can only pay them on a weekend
    • The chance to see international work and learn from our international peers
    • A place to scratch and learn and the opportunity to fail as well as the conditions to succeed.

    With my venue hat on
    • Help with subsidy – if we can only make a limited amount on a house because of low ticket yield how do we still pay the artists properly when we also have to pay our overheads?
    • Companies to understand the need for good images, good copy and good communication; help us to sell your work.
    • Companies who spend time with an outside eye – if you are in it, please bring in a director or Dramaturg to help you shape it

    And with both hats on – a conversation. Last week I was at the Imaginate Festival – companies and programmers met, discussed, debated and developed a dialogue about the work. Small steps was exactly what it said on the tin, our first small step to making that happen here in the south east and I was heartened to see venue directors as well as companies …. now just as a toddler learns to walk so do we now need to learn to stride with confidence together.

  2. The UK is exceptionally lucky to have people like Sarah Brigham who give a dam about art for young people. I have been a participant of Sarah’s work and now create theatre for young audiences in Hong Kong.

    What Sarah says is correct, I really hope that companies don’t just decide to turn to make theatre for young audiences because its a money spinner in a time when money is tight and companies just want to impress the arts council because they’ve finally found that young people and schools can create revenue for them. Or they just realise this is necessary for them to try and acquire this kind of funding at this time.

    I hope arts council commissioners would be able to see though this kind of application.

    This kind of ‘cynicism’ of chasing the dragon of funding is a problem I would always hope that companies would want to make theatre for young audiences because they want to inspire young artists not just so that they can simply tour a show. And that they actually have complex articulated ideas to make to young people.

    Trying to add to what Sarah has left in her comments is difficult as it is comprehensive and I almost enterally agree with what she’s saying.

    The question of the article is odd because, why show we have to ‘encourage’ artists to make work for young people, if they don’t want to, why encourage them? Surely this will just increase cynical work! When there is an impressive YTA company or a YTA start ups working specifically for young people why not invest in them more and expand their ability to produce using diverse artists to add to their practice.

    In Hong Kong only the rich can afford to see children’s theatre and the UK is only a couple of policy moves away from this being the case and this shouldn’t be forgotten. I would love to bring my company back to the UK but its uneconomic as a start up company. Investment is minimal in the UK. In Hong Kong I can work completely free of funding bodies and make profit to reinvest into my company. I am a UK citizen I’d love make work at home but who is going to make any realistic investment unless I go though Sarah’s organisation in the south east (in which you need a specific post code) or Scotland?

    TYA when done well inspires artists, I’m one myself, I want to inspire others to find the freedom of artistic expression in theatre what ever age.

    Listening to Sarahs comment would be a massive step forward for the arts council and could only help them to become a better body.

    Support quality artists and take there advice and don’t just have a symposium about it implement it.

    Create sustainable successes rather than seeing ‘white’ (which is not such an international success that its made its way to hong kong but hey china’s a long way away and I’m sure it was great and I would love it if it made its way here).

    The Arts council is an incredible organisation and resource for artists but it can learn.

    Matthew Baker

  3. Michael Judge says:

    Thanks, Sarah and Matthew for the responses; here are some more thoughts.

    Sarah – I agree with everything you say full-heartedly. In particular, I agree that fairy-tales, poems and classic stories are there to be passed on. I think Mike Kenny’s comment is to provoke further ambition. The tale is not enough in itself so what is the ambition driving how it is told, played with and given new meaning? We know there are traditional tales but how are they told in the 21st century? For example, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart by David Greig takes the form of the Scottish folk ballad and simultaneously seems to celebrate, desecrate and re-invigorate it for a 21st century world. How does theatre sit in a digital world? For example, digital is live and can add to the conversation but as David Edgar said at this year’s State of the arts conference, theatre has the unique selling point of being ‘live’ and ‘here.’ Theatre can and should embrace new technologies but how does it bring the most out of what is does best – people in a space together ‘live’ and ‘here?’

    Matthew – The provocation in my questions is about raising the status of the work; and this is for programmers and venues as much as for artists. The emphasis in the question is on encouraging extraordinary work; and for this to happen the work needs to be seen, valued and given profile. Funding is obviously important but, as you rightly point out, there is no point chasing funding for the sake of it. Its great to hear you started as a participant and now work in the sector. As Julie Ward points out elsewhere in this blog, youth theatre is rich breeding ground for emerging practitioners. Where ambition is high, it is where new forms are created and risks are taken; often ahead of mainstream theatre. For example, the recent production of Three Kingdoms at the Lyric, Hammersmith, a collaboration between a German director, Estonian designer and British writer has been heralded by some as a ‘game-changer’ for British theatre. And yet in terms of its form, its musical energy, its visceral muscle it does not, in my opinion, take the same spine-tantalising risks that the German youth theatre Die Zwiefachen, based at the Schaubühne was taking in 2008. In that production, I saw some extraordinary work by young performers who collaborated with Aarohan Theatre from Nepal in Liverpool 2008. I’d be interested to compare the status given by the Schaubühne to its youth theatre to that of English theatres.

    Oh, one more thing, the piece I saw in Liverpool was based on the Odyssey, a traditional tale, but told in extraordinary way.

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