With two of Playing Up’s graduation shows taking to the Unicorn stage this month, the Associate Director of National Youth Theatre talks to IdeasMag about this extraordinary theatre programme…
While being an actor I started working in the community and in prison settings – to use drama as a tool for change.
I worked in Wandsworth Prison for two years, helping the men to address their family relationships, their children and how to break the cycle. Often, children with parents in prison will themselves go to prison.
I came to National Youth Theatre to set up the Playing Up course and to expand their social inclusion policy. It is essentially a course for young people at risk.
Playing Up is an accredited level three course, so it’s equivalent to two A-Levels. In the four years we’ve been running it there’s about an 89% success rate of people getting into higher education – both drama school and university. That’s much higher than the national average.
We work with key workers, job centres and put out call outs through organisations like The Roundhouse and Cardboard Citizens to find these young people. If they’re not in education, employment or training, have under five GCSEs, are between 18 and 25, don’t have the qualifications to access higher education and on benefits, then they are considered at risk.
It’s a three-day-a-week course for a year, with some intense periods of five days a week. This year we’ve got at least three going to Rose Bruford, four going to Central School for Speech and Drama and others going to Kingston University, East London University and Birmingham School of Acting. Some are doing creative writing and acting, but a lot of them want to be facilitators themselves.
I tend to think that young people who have had some sort of disadvantage or problem in their life tend to align themselves more with art and drama; the more expressive forms of education. With drama, the power of becoming somebody else is extraordinary. It can be very liberating.
Playing Up is for talented young people; there is an audition process. There’s a reason why each person is chosen to go on it and it doesn’t suit everybody. It’s tough.
Playing Up gives people a whole new set of relationships; a new family. They also gain a qualification, access to people they’d never normally meet and pastoral care. It also gives the opportunity to perform in a professional venue. Confidence, team-work, communication and oral skills, something on your CV – it’s everything.
The performing arts are still a very middle class industry. But people are working really hard to widen the opportunities.
The Unicorn plays are the two final shows for the course. We commissioned two writers from our Write to Shine programme, Luke Barnes and Natasha Collie. The first, Moonfruit, is all about a family secret. It’s beautiful and quite mythical – there’s an urban fairy in it. The second, Week Day Nights, is about an abusive family relationship and it’s sort of a mix of Precious and Fish Tank. They’re both an hour long and play next to each other. On the last night of the run, the participants will graduate from the course.
As a member of society I think you have a responsibility to effect change. If my way is through drama, then that’s how I’ll do it.
In Focus: How you can get involved in social theatre
If you want to work in this sector, then you need to shadow good people. The Roundhouse and Cardboard Citizens both have great programmes and Central do a brilliant course in applied theatre. Rose Bruford is hopefully developing a new facilitators course. Also, check out the work that Cat Jones does at HMP Doncaster through Second Shot. They always take young people as interns.
For more information about Playing Up and the shows at The Unicorn Theatre, visit the NYT website.