Education and Engagement: Strangling Young People and the Arts

The following keynote speech was delivered at the Royal Opera House Bridge’s conference You Ask, We Listen at the Royal Opera House on 20 February 2015. The conference was based on the BrigeFest report which asks why young people do not engage with the arts.

Ah, young people. Those mythical beings we hope, nay, we pray to get through our doors to engage with our work. Much like the Unicorn, the young people are a shy creature. They’re often found in small herds, moving at ease between social activities and grazing on the plentiful food provided for them by the elders. Their characteristics are familiar to the Troll, they’re slow, meandering creatures. They care not for their surroundings. They are mucky beasts, leaving a trail of discarded destruction. Like a Sphinx they talk in riddles but if truth be told they be a social thing. These young people take care of their appearance (but doesn’t every Unicorn care about its luscious locks?), they babble in a language that is oddly familiar to the older ones of us. A grunt, a snort, a high-pitched cackle of expletives. Aye, the young people language does sound familiar. In recent years evolution has played its part, giving growth to extended limbs with electrical devices that beep and buzz and bother us so. Much like a dragon they are temperamental giants, if you come in contact with one be prepared to be hit with their fiery flames of adolescence. A dangerous being, these young people are. We know not how they grow. We know not how they thrive. We know not who, what and why. But they survive. Ah, young people. Those mythical beings we hope, nay, we pray to get through our doors.

You can see where I am going with this.

Young people as the mythical group that we, as arts professionals, want to engage with but often struggle.

According to the Arts Council I have another 2 months before I am no longer a young person. Before I move from one box on a form to another, before I am in a completely different demographic. Overnight I turn from youth to professional. National Rail stopped my Young Person’s Railcard in October and most theatres kicked me off their young people’s schemes last year. On April 29 when I hit 27 I am suddenly an adult. But will I really be any different to the Jake Orr of April 28 at 26 years old? I doubt it.

This labeling of young people – defining who someone is based upon their age – is a barrier and one we need to break. The more we compress someone into a bracket for box ticketing, the further we place them into the territory of mythical creatures. Young people aren’t unicorns or dragons, we all know this. They are exactly the same as anyone of us, only younger. We forget that as we step down the path of learning and discovery of life that we were once a younger, smaller version of ourselves. Let’s embrace that. Embrace the fact that there are no differences between what we deem a young person to be and who we were or are.

Breaking down barriers is an important task for us to do when we think about engagement and people younger than ourselves. On reading the BridgeFest report barriers of confidence, marketing and awareness were key standout points. For me though the barriers are not just the obvious ones but the invisible barriers. They’re ones we can’t quite quantify and address with ease. A fine example is these buildings that house our nation’s art. They’re barriers. The walls block out those unwanted. The walls prevent you from seeing in. The walls are oppressive and crushing, reaching high up and enveloping themselves around our artwork. Stepping over the threshold between those walls becomes the barrier. The unknown is the barrier. An invisible barrier that makes us question and stops us engaging.

Invisible barriers of class, knowledge, expectations, high-art and education weigh us down. How often do we take a moment to consider how difficult it is for someone to step into a building that they don’t know what lies within? A building with all these rules about where you can and can’t go; with what you’re meant to think, feel and behave. Is it any wonder the arts and these buildings we house it in is seen as not suitable for the young. Our buildings don’t inspire our younger selves, they strangle our imagination and force us into unnatural systems. Systems that when we do engage leave us excluded and bewildered. The actors may be playing on the stage, but as audiences we sit in the dark, silent and waiting to clap on cue. Theatre doesn’t represent the lives of us, it tries to replicate, to coax us into believing we’re seeing a slice of family life, but in reality it is a bizarre, so very bizarre representation and system we put ourselves through night after night. And then we expect our younger selves to engage in this completely unnatural system of darkness and silence?

When we talk about the engagement of our younger selves we often look towards the outreach department or projects department with expectation. Any fall in engagement must be because the outreach team aren’t doing their work. For me though we shouldn’t need outreach or project departments if the work being represented in our buildings were actually representative of the audiences we want to engage with. It is much the fault of our artistic directors and chief executives as it is the fault of the engagement teams employed to ‘reach out’. Is the arts world inclusive? Does it reflect society? Does it give space, time and understanding to our younger selves?

It fascinates me that in mainland Europe there are theatre spaces where adults hardly frequent because young people have called it their home. The work presented on the stage echoes through the building where theatre becomes not only a place to watch and engage with art, but to meet and socialise, a space inhabited by young people because everything – from the building, to the programming, to the seats in the foyers – is embracing the younger self. It’s non-hierarchical, it’s simply reacting.

In 2012 I gave a speech at the Theatre’s Trust Conference about my vision of theatres in the future. I painted a picture of buildings as the powerhouses of the community. Powerhouse in a literal sense, the energy generators stored in the venue would power the whole street. With the closure of libraries and post offices and youth centres venues would bring these together under one roof, creating a heart for the community. I want to see these venues as a meeting place and playground for our younger selves. To socialise and belong in a shared space. This shared space would break down those invisible barriers because young people would own the space just as much as everyone else within the community. A youth-come-elderly-come-post-office-come-library-come-arts-centre. A real centre at the heart of our community. A vital lifeline for all. If we want to get our younger selves engaged we have to start breaking down the physical walls and invisible barriers that keep us all separate and decompartmentalised. We need to rethink our buildings.

The BridgeFest report suggests that more can be done within a school setting to engage our younger selves but in many respects I’m inclined to disagree. Education strangles young people with essays and assessments on theatre and the arts. It tells us that if you engage in Shakespeare or Bach or Picasso you have to do so with field trips, and ‘keep your shirt tucked in’ and give me 1,000 words by next week. Art becomes education and education becomes spoonfed ‘this is good for you’. The arts presented through an educational setting hangs heavy on the mind, like Pythagoras’ theory or the Periodic table. For some this will enlighten, it will leave to pursuing the arts further but for many it is education, education, boring education. It is the strangling of creativity, not the flourishing.

If we’re serious about addressing our concerns about engaging with our younger selves then we have to stop framing engagement within an educational environmental. We have to see the work we do with our younger selves across whole organisation. It has to be reflected just as much in the work we present as with the activities around that work. We need to stop leaning heavily on outreach departments and start seriously addressing those at the top of organisations as to what they are doing to support the growth in younger audiences.

We need to stop with all the rules, rules, rules of how to think, feel and act at the theatre, in galleries or museums. We need to embrace chaos, embrace change and embrace a younger approach to creativity. I founded A Younger Theatre in 2009 because I was fed up of the lack of diverse voices talking about theatre and the arts. If there is one thing I’ve learnt since then it is how much we should cherish a young perspective on the arts. Our younger selves don’t have all the answers, they don’t have all the knowledge but what they do have is the energy and drive to offer play and imagination. Why would we not want to embrace that? With A Younger Theatre we make it clear: you engage with us not because of our age but because of our thoughts, because you won’t find those opinions anywhere else. I feel lucky that in the last four years we’ve worked with hundreds of people to give them a platform to be heard. But at the root of what we’ve achieved is one simple understanding: we had to treat everyone with the same respect, understanding and time as anyone else. We acknowledged there was a need and we filled it. We listened, we learned and we grew. From a blog, to a website, to an organisation developing writing through workshops, mentoring, and a publication and now a 10 day festival of emerging theatre companies. We do this because it is the right thing to do, because there is no alternative. We stand up to what we believe in and we shout about it until someone listens. We’re saying it simple, we’re removing the rules.

The question of why young people don’t engage or attend the arts is the wrong question we are asking. We should be asking ourselves what we are doing to break down the barriers, those really obvious ones: programming, buildings and rules. We need to ask ourselves how we can be more like our younger selves. To stop and remember that we were all a ‘young person’ and to ask what would we have done. Let’s stop the box ticketing, let’s stop the age brackets and let’s embrace our younger selves. The more we throw education and outreach at the perceived problem, the more we push those creatures of young people into a mythical shape. Unicorns are bloody cool, and dragons can fly, but young people, young people are so much better when we just see them as who they are. They’re us, and we are them, so let’s make art that shows that. Let’s do away with engagement and start seeing creativity. Let’s challenge and be challenge. Let’s ask the questions and listen to the answers.

Photo by Chris Devers via a Creative Commons licence.